During my senior year of high school, I was asked by a school counselor what my plans were upon graduation. I told him I wanted to go to Colorado State University and study to be a counselor. His response was, “Why don’t you look at community colleges? They’re more affordable.” Immediately my education dreams were crushed.
Maybe he thought I wasn’t smart enough, or perhaps too poor to afford a four-year college. Maybe he didn’t even realize how his words were affecting me. But he was white, and I was not, and this sort of experience is common for students of color like me.
Shortly thereafter, I went to see a different counselor, who primarily worked with students of color, and told her about this conversation. She quickly assured me that I could achieve whatever I dreamed of, and that I should use this incident as fuel and motivation for me to keep going! Being a first-generation high school student, support like this was a blessing.
However, many students like me don’t have access to that kind of support, and parents often aren’t able to help their children because of a lack of understanding of the United States education system or other factors like language and work barriers. Many of my Hispanic friends’ parents did not have the opportunity to continue their education after middle school in Mexico. Therefore, it was hard for them to help their children navigate an education system they did not know.
Parents being involved in their children’s education is crucial to their enrollment in higher education. Among students whose parents had no college, only 37% had attended a four-year college within eight years after high school, whereas the figure was 56% for students whose parents had some college education, and 88% for students whose parents had a bachelor’s degree or higher. These findings clearly show that students’ own educational attainment is dramatically affected by their parents’ educational background.
In addition, in Fort Morgan, Cargill is one of the largest employers and they have their employees work long shifts. Many parents do not participate in activities at school because they work full-time or part-time during school hours. Also, participation in school activities may be especially difficult for parents with less education because they tend to have less flexible work schedules.
At Center for Health Progress, we focus a lot on the social determinants of health. Educational attainment is currently a significant determinant of a person’s health, but it shouldn’t be, and we’re committed to ensuring it is not. That means we need to tackle the root causes of these injustices, like institutional racism. We do this through tools like Waiting for Health Equity, and educating communities on health inequities. We also do it by bringing communities together to hold our institutions accountable for the harm they are doing.
If the person in that counselor’s chair had had proper training on implicit bias or the social determinants of health, maybe it would have changed their response to me. We need to hold ourselves and each other to a higher standard, so we all can reach our highest potential. When all students have the opportunity to pursue their educational dreams, they can access a better career and better health. High schools and universities have a responsibility to their students and families to create and cultivate a welcoming environment for all. I know firsthand what a high school diploma and a college degree can bring to the table, and I want that for all of Colorado’s youth.