My parents always said, “The one thing no one can take away from you is your education.”
Neither of them went to college. For my Mom, a traditional housewife from a working class Hispanic family, it was not expected. For my father, a farm boy from a family of 11 in Ohio, it was out of reach, though he long dreamed of attending college and passed those dreams on to his children. Part of that dream was the hope that their children would not have the financial struggles they had, part of it was the belief that a college education led to a better life.
What wasn’t clear to me then, but became clear later, was that “better” did not mean easier – did not mean wealthier. My parents, like many who never attended college, saw a university degree as a ticket out. It was that, but not how they expected. This ticket wasn’t “Pass Go, Collect $200.” It was a ticket to a different kind of place: it gave us freedom to choose our own paths in life.
In 1987, at 17, I moved two hours away from home to attend college. Those two hours may as well have been a different world. I was exposed to new ideas, people from all over the state and country, people of all backgrounds. My mind was opened, and with it, my entire world.
While I majored in political science with an emphasis in international relations, I eventually became a biology major, then switched back to political science. General Education Requirements meant I had to take music and art appreciation, English, a foreign language, a science for non-majors (which excited me so much I switched to a biology major), philosophy, economics, history, sociology, and more.
Twenty-some years later, I pick up my book of Brazilian poetry (in Portuguese and English) and remember fondly the joy of listening to this fascinating language while trying to understand the poets’ motivations. I think of the books I read in my “Literature of Southeast Asia” class, and the amazing professor who helped tie the experiences of people from a place I’d never even thought to visit with the experiences of those of us from the east edge of Los Angeles.
I remember learning about the politics of various South American countries, and how their histories were tied to the history of the United States. Today, that knowledge helps me to understand the news articles I read daily. I was in a class studying international relations when the Berlin Wall fell. I was studying the political system of the Soviet Union when the USSR broke apart. The discussions which took place among my classmates were intense, dynamic, and fascinating.
During that time I had a friend from the USSR who was in the U.S. for a one-year fellowship. He gave me his now worthless Soviet rubles and shared his fears of going home to a country that no longer existed, making this geopolitical event personal.
Did meeting this person or any of these experiences lead to a job? Not directly. Did they open my eyes to the world? Immeasurably.
While all this could have been theoretically possible had I not gone to college, the likelihood I, with my working class family background with no advanced education and no travel experience, would have had these experiences is slim.
I eventually went on to earn a Master of Public Health degree in Infectious Disease Epidemiology – a much more training oriented, applied degree. Then I earned a Ph.D. in Biological Sciences, specializing in tropical diseases. All those courses proved invaluable as I worked in Africa, Central America, and Southeast Asia, and even here in Texas. After leaving tropical disease research to work in applied public health locally, I now teach biology part-time at The University of the Incarnate Word.
I recently gave a talk to UIW’s Biology Club. My take home message was, essentially, “Follow your passion and learn for learning’s sake.” Everything you learn, you can take with you on your journey through life. In my lab course, I tell my students that I’m not training them to perform a certain technique, but helping them to understand why we do that technique.
I would argue that the problem many students face today isn’t the earning of the degree, but the expectation of what it provides. Education is indeed a path to a better future, but a university degree in this country is not a technical, training degree. It’s not an automatic ticket to a better job and a higher salary. Indeed, many bright, successful people are not college graduates, but education broadens our minds, it opens doors. The shortcoming of our system is that we are not clearly conveying that to young people when we encourage education. As educators, we have a responsibility to be realistic about the goal of a university degree.
As we continue to encourage college, we must consider the value of technical training programs. These are great options for those looking for a job training degree. My husband is from Switzerland, where students have the option, at 15-16 years of age, to choose an apprenticeship. Not interested in traditional school, he chose this route and did an apprenticeship in mechanical design. He then went on to engineering school. He ultimately decided to return to traditional education, studied physics at university, eventually earned a Ph.D., and now does space research here in San Antonio. The apprenticeship provided him with valuable, practical training, that he draws upon daily in his more academic science pursuits.
A university education is an invaluable thing, but isn’t for everyone, particularly if it means substantial debt. I had very little debt after college, thanks to an excellent public university system in California and working part-time. However, I was under a mountain of debt after my two-year MPH program at an Ivy League university. So I know debt intimately. A university education should be financially available to all who have the desire and inclination to get one. At the same time, there should be financially available options for technical training for those interested in more applied options.
An expanded program of apprenticeship, modeled after the Swiss and German systems should be considered. Codeup and other computer technology training courses are the perfect opportunity for many. Technical programs at our community colleges are also excellent opportunities that should be explored and encouraged more often.
In an article published on the Rivard Report last week, Omar Quimbaya felt college let him down. I’d argue his English degree gave him valuable writing skills, skills he will use in any career he pursues.
For me, despite paying student loans until I turned 40, despite not starting, just out of college, in a high paying career-for-life job, college expanded my horizons. I use my education daily, in all elements of my life, personal and professional. It has taken me to places I never thought possible.
I am the first to encourage a high school student to consider a university education. But I will remind them, as I remind my current college students: it’s not intended to teach you how to do. It will teach you how to think and it will open up your world to endless possibilities.
Cherise Rohr-Allegrini grew up in Baldwin Park, CA, an area similar to the Southside of San Antonio. After college at UC Santa Barbara, she went east to attend Yale’s School of Epidemiology and Public Health. Once there she combined her love of travel, cultures, languages, international politics and science. After stints in Costa Rica, England, and Kenya, she completed her PhD in Tropical Diseases at the University of Notre Dame. A post-doctoral fellowship led her to Mae Sot, Thailand, and to San Antonio, where she now lives with her husband and two children. Formerly an Epidemiologist with the San Antonio Metro Health Department and Communicable Disease Program Manager with the Department of State Health Services, she now teaches part time at The University of the Incarnate Word, uses her expertise as the Science Chair for Bonham Academy’s PTA and is on the board of Friends of Bonham Academy http://friendsofbonham.org/. You can reach her firstname.lastname@example.org.