(Cross-posted on the Google for Work Blog.)
Editor’s Note: Today we hear from our Chief Education Evangelist, Jaime Casap, who spoke at First Lady Michelle Obama’s 2015 “Beating the Odds” Summit. The event welcomed more than 130 college-bound students from across the country and focused on sharing tools and strategies to help more students successfully transition to college and complete the next level of their education.
Last week I had the honor of sharing my story with over 130 college-bound students at First Lady Michelle Obama’s "Beating the Odds" Summit — part of her Reach Higher initiative. These students came from across the country and different backgrounds. They included urban, rural, foster, homeless, special needs and underrepresented youth, all of whom have overcome substantial barriers to make it to college.
In my daily job I get to work with a group of people focused on building technology and programs that can help support teachers, who help empower their students to be lifelong learners. I believe education has the power to rid poverty and change the destiny of a family in just one generation. Reach Higher has the same mission: to invest in our students and help them get the education they need to thrive.
This mission is also deeply personal for me. I was raised in Hell’s Kitchen, New York by a single mother who came to America from Argentina. On my first day of school, I didn’t speak English. I grew up fast and watched my elementary school friends turn into addicts and criminals. When I looked for a road out, I saw only dead ends, until I realized education was a road out. But it wasn’t easy: everything around me shrieked, “you won’t make it; you aren’t meant to succeed.”
I realize now that the negative voices are always there; you have to push them down. With the help of my teachers, I graduated from high school and committed to going to college. There were many times when I felt like I didn’t belong — at that time the college graduation rate for Latinos was around five percent — but I graduated with a double major, packed up my stuff and drove across the country to pursue a Master of Public Policy degree. The only way I did it was by convincing myself to prove the naysayers wrong.
Education didn’t just change my life, it changed my family, too. I now have three kids, and my eldest daughter graduated from college last month. I never had a conversation with her about college, she just assumed she was and should go to college. My 14-year-old wants to build a college curriculum for himself focused on game design. My kids don’t face the barriers I did; they see no obstacles in their way.
This is to say that I believe in what the First Lady is trying to accomplish with Reach Higher. Students must go beyond high school graduation — whether that’s a four-year college, community college or a technical/certification program. One reason this is essential is because today’s high-school-only graduates earn just 62 percent of what their college-graduate peers earn. We need to prepare all our students, especially our most vulnerable students, for their future and help them reach high.
Often we ask our students the wrong question: “What do you want to be when you grow up.” Instead, we should ask “What problem do you want to solve?” We should empower students to take ownership of their learning. As much as I want students to be college and career ready, I also want them to be curious lifelong learners ready to tackle the world’s problems.
For millions of students, “reaching higher” means beating the odds with a lot of hard work, a healthy disrespect for the impossible, and some luck. It means ignoring self-doubt and proving the haters wrong. It means being proud of the experiences that define you — they will be a competitive advantage some day. It means believing in education and believing in yourself, then sharing your story with the world.
See recorded coverage of the event.