I have dreamt my whole life that I would be worthy enough to attend the University of Washington, but I never truly believed it was possible until now. Still, it feels like I am dreaming. My life took so many twists and turns while I was growing up that I never knew where I was going to end up and I felt powerless to direct my own life, to say the least. Yet, just over two years ago I decided that I was going give everything I had, invest every ounce of energy, and to make every necessary sacrifice in order to accomplish this life-long dream. In one week from today I am going to walk onto the campus for the first time as a student of the University of Washington.
For me, attending the University of Washington is a gateway into a new life. I am not saying that other universities are not as credible or as life-changing. What I am saying is that as a first generation college student this is an evolutionary step into the future of my family. Even as an American in this supposed “land of opportunity,” when I was born I had a limited set of opportunities to pursue. I am a man of mixed descent; my mother is African-American and my father is Irish-American, and both of my parents are mixed with Native-American, so I am about as light-skinned as we come. That does not overshadow the “One Drop” rule that states, “one drop of African blood and you are considered African—Black,” and the opportunities for Black children were not as forthcoming as they were for White children when I was born.
My maternal grandmother is retired now, but she worked through temporary work agencies for twenty years because she lacked the education necessary to acquire any long-term employment. My maternal grandfather was a mechanic in the United States Air Force in the 1960’s and when he returned to the states he began to work for Metro driving buses. My mother has been a house-keeper for twenty years and has done everything and provided everything that any child could both need and want. However, she has always felt the lack of not having an education. All she ever wanted was for her children to have a better life than she has had and to have opportunities that she never had. Everyone in my family is well read and very intelligent, but in this credential society that relies on proof of knowledge in the form of a piece of paper, their intelligence has been neither respected, nor accepted.
I wish that I had more to say about my father’s family, but the truth is that my mother, my brother and I, and even my father were disowned because my father married a Black woman and he had mixed children. There has been a long standing feud between Irish immigrants and African-Americans since the 18th and 19th Centuries, because these two groups were pitted against one another in competition for resources and jobs. That feud has been passed down through the generations and it ripped my family apart; racism and oppression is still alive today and all I need to prove this is my own family experience. The point is that, these are the reasons that I do not know much about my paternal family. My father however, was not very productive because he suffered from alcoholism and a mental illness that fueled a psychosis that caused us to flee him when I was but a child. I have not seen or heard from my father since I was ten years old. My mother has raised my brother and me since then.
If it is not evident already in what I have said, my family was and is economically challenged. Affording college for two sons, let alone some of the things that most Americans consider staples in their lives was not possible. The tuition and expenses of attending the University of Washington is approximately $20,000 a year and the costs were no less bleak when I was eighteen years old. Unless I was able to earn scholarships, my family was not going to be able to send me to college.
However, I did not have the grades to earn those scholarships because when I was fourteen years old I became a member of the neighborhood gang and I dropped out of school. There are many reasons that can be listed for why I made those decisions, and they are all pertinent, but the reality is that those decisions destroyed my hopes of earning scholarships when I was a teenager and with it my dreams of attending the University of Washington.
At this point, I fell into the footsteps of my father and I thus continued the cycle of alcoholism. It is a vile and corrosive enemy that is a paradoxical trickster; on the one hand alcohol and drugs can be imbibed for spirituality or relaxation, but it can also be addicting and destructive. Some say that alcoholism is a disease, and of those that believe that, some also say that it is a family disease. If that is true, and my experience would suggest that it is at least possible, then that would also mean that my children are at risk. It has also been shown that socioeconomic conditions contribute to the use and abuse of alcohol and drugs. If this is true, then not only was that a factor in my life, but it would also be a factor in the lives of my children. If all of this is true, then my not going to college would mean that I could not climb out of the cycle of socioeconomic despair because I would not have the credentials to earn gainful employment and, the cycle of alcoholism would be passed onto my children who could potentially pass it onto their children as well.
By the grace of God, I was able to get away from the drugs and alcohol and even the gang when I was nineteen years old, but by that time the damage was done. I was distrusted by society, I had a criminal record, I had no education and I was struggling just to keep my head above water. What I had going for me was the desire to break the cycles which had plagued my family for generations. So, slowly with the help of the program of Alcoholics Anonymous, I began to put the pieces of my life back together and to make reparations for the harm that I had caused to my family and the people of this great society. It took a few years, but I did finally re-earn the trust of society, rebuilt the broken relationships with my family and friends, and I found employment in the service industry.
In 2004, I was given the opportunity to enter into the construction industry. This too, however, was only a step in the right direction because while it did afford me some room for growth, it did not allow me to use my brain. I moved up in the company rather quickly because I was good with my hands and I was good with people, and I started to attend classes to help me with business and construction management, which included project management. Yet, these were only certificate classes, and as I began to excel in them it rewetted my appetite for a real education, at first for construction management, but then for law. There was still the little problem of being able to afford the tuition and expenses, though, and I could not find a way to manage it. I soon came to the harsh realization though that if I did not leave the construction industry I would destroy my body, my chances for a college degree, and I would possibly not break the cycle my family was stuck in. And in 2011, I left my construction career to pursue a law degree by whatever means necessary.
That is when I started to attend North Seattle Community College to earn my Associate of Arts degree. My mother, still a house-keeper took me in so that I could devote all of my energy to my studies and I have lived with her ever since. This was very humbling because since I was nineteen years old, I had been on my own and sought to take care of myself, but there was no way that I was going to be able to do that and succeed in college alone. My mother cared for my living situation and I was able to secure financial aid to afford to pay for classes, book and transportation. Getting approved for and maintaining my financial aid status was not easy, I was constantly having to apply and appeal decisions, but with the help of my mother and the people in the financial aid office at NSCC, I was able to find every cent that I needed to continue my education.
Adjusting to collegiate life was not easy, I had been away from true academic life for many years and I had to relearn how to be a student. When I was seven years old, I suffered from a massive brain injury during a car accident that left me with a very short attention span and migraine headaches. This made reading miserably difficult for me because halfway through a paragraph I might forget everything that I had just read. Yet, I was determined not to be defeated and I invested myself into learning techniques so that I could stay focused.
Professor Gutierrez, my English 102 instructor was incredibly helpful in teaching me how to stay focused. He taught me how to annotate as I read by underlining the important lines, blocking out important sections, and writing in the margin. All of this was vastly different than my experience in high school—when I did attend—because we could not write in our borrowed books and no one taught us how to take notes, and I finally began to have an experience of my own with the books that I was reading. As I began to do this, I found that I could not only remain focused while reading, but that I could actually retain the information better because I had owned it and made it part of myself. He also taught me how to write clearly and precisely and how to provide accurate citations of other people’s work that I assimilated into my own assignments. All of which I carried through into the rest of my classes and helped me to succeed in every one of them.
Beyond all my greatest hopes, dreams, and aspirations I did the unbelievable; I graduated from North Seattle Community College June 14, 2013 with my Associate of Arts degree. And not only did I graduate, but I was also the valedictorian of my graduating class. Even as I write this, I sit in near disbelief that I actually accomplished what I never believed possible, what seemed impossible for so long became a reality and I exceeded what I hoped was possible for a person like me with the history that I have. That very same week I received a letter from the University of Washington stated that I had been accepted for enrollment in the autumn of 2013, my dream was coming true. Yet, there was still one piece of the puzzle that had not been accounted for: tuition and expenses.
I immediately began applying for scholarships and financial aid, but hit just about every roadblock that could emerge. I discovered that I was supposed to have my financial aid request submitted the previous February. Neither my counselors at NSCC, nor anything I read on the UW website prepared me for that. And at that time, the apartment complex that my mother and I were staying at was bought by new owners and for an unspecified reason they evicted us, so we had to fight to find a place to live in a very limited amount of time. My head was not in the game and I barely scraped through the quarter with my grades intact. None of that changed the fact that in being fair to all students, we all need to make the deadlines regardless of the life circumstances are present, or at least so I thought.
As it turned out, the University of Washington also had an appellate process. In the appeal I was allowed to make the true and accurate claim that because I was a first generation college student that I was unaware of how to maneuver through the bureaucratic system. I was also able to establish that I met the need-based-requirements for federal assistance and in late July, my appeal was approved and I was given the money that I needed to attend the University of Washington.
By earning my Associate of Arts degree I have already broken the cycle that my family has been in for generations, but an AA degree does not open many doors however, because in today’s credential society that is nearly equivalent to what a high school diploma was worth thirty years ago. The University of Washington is my gateway into a new life because the degree I will earn will place me in a higher employment bracket and will help me to gain access to the professional degree that I am pursuing. This is a dream come true, but this is only the beginning.
I have several plans for what I want to do with the degrees that I am going to ear at the University of Washington. The most important of which is that once I graduate I will finally be able to afford to buy my mother a house, get her out of the house-keeping industry and to send her to school to earn the degree that she has always wanted to earn. Besides earning my own degree, I cannot think of a better way to repay her for all that she has invested into me and my development all these years. Next, what I want to do is use the law degree that I will earn is turning that into a mechanism to benefit humanity. Currently, I am working on a project to develop a curriculum utilizing hip hop and poetry to reach other at-risk-youth to instruct them on how to be successful in college. Later, I will be focusing on public policy and the United States government as a means to effect positive change.
For a man like me, all of this is nearly unbelievable and I am beside myself with gratitude. In seven days I will be walking into my first class at the University of Washington and stepping into the first day of the rest of my life.
If I have learned anything through this process, then it is this:
“All dreams can come true if we have the courage to pursue them.”