When I was in first grade, I had a bank made out of a tin Crisco can with a slot cut in the top. It had pennies and nickels and a few quarters I had earned or been given.
One day, my mother told me that I could go to YMCA camp the following summer. I could use the coins I had saved in my can and she would pay the rest.
“I can’t use that money for camp,” I told her. “I’m saving for college.”
My mother laughed. I probably would have too in her situation with a six-year-old saving for college.
But I was serious.
The truth is, I don’t know where I got the idea that I was going to college. No one in my family had ever been. But as my schooling continued, my commitment to make my life better by working hard and going to college deepened.
My father’s family came to America after the First World War. My grandfather was a mechanic and a pilot who ran little airports and taught people to fly. He served in the Second World War for the United States, towing targets for gunnery practice and patrolling the coast looking for submarines. My grandmother was a seamstress and worked in a shoe factory.
My Dad started flying as a kid and enlisted in the Air Force for a few years after high school. He was a mechanic and, after he got out of the Air Force, he was a pilot.
My Mom’s family came from Ireland. After my Dad died in a car accident when I was in second grade, she went back to work as a nurse in our local hospital.
When I was a junior in high school they opened the Air Force Academy to women. It was a full ride scholarship – a ticket to a dream.
My grandfather was still alive when I left home for the Academy. I was seventeen years old – the same age he had been when he lied about his age and joined the Royal Air Force. I was his only granddaughter and he was so proud of me. It was the only time I ever saw him cry.
I worked hard and thrived at the Academy. It challenged me and helped me grow from an awkward teenager from a small town into an educated young woman of promise. It opened doors for me that I didn’t even know existed.
The boys and girls in first grade today, saving pennies and nickels for camp or college, will be graduating from high school 12 years hence. Those students will be preparing for careers that do not yet exist, using technology that has not yet been invented.
I believe in the power of education to change lives because it changed mine.
When it comes to education, what was good enough for our parents and our grandparents is not good enough for our children or our grandchildren. The pace of change is accelerating.
A commitment to continuous learning for everyone – to access, excellence, and impact – will separate the regions of the world that thrive in the 21st century from those that don’t.
UTEP is committed to building this bright future, and I’m honored to be a part of it.
Photo gallery courtesy UTEP