Though I grew up in relative poverty with a struggling single mom, I put in the hard work to excel academically at my public high school in New Brighton, Pennsylvania. Figuratively speaking, I was hungry, and I did not want to stay stuck in the narrative of not having as much, wanting more, and experiencing a lack of access because of resources. At the age of six, I knew I wanted to go to college. I saw education as the passport to improve my financial future. Since my loving mother did not have the money to send me to college, I eventually figured out that the best way for me to get financing for college was to get all A’s in middle school and then in high school. I was not perfect, but on most of my report cards, I earned a 4.0 GPA to reach my goal.
In high school, I studied on the bus on the way to road basketball games and track meets while my teammates were playing around. I often did my homework over lunch. Dating was not a priority while I was in high school. Being highly ranked academically in your high school class, at that time in western Pennsylvania, was not typically associated with being cool or having charm with the ladies at the high school level. Some of my friends called me “Knowledge Nut,” “Brainiac,” and other funny names.
I graduated as the valedictorian of my class and had several college options. I attended my first-choice school, the University of Pittsburgh – affectionately known as Pitt. As a result of my efforts in high school, I earned numerous scholarships that allowed me to complete my Pitt Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering degree free of charge. My figurative passport was now stamped with my entry visa – welcome to a brighter future!
For decades, people have complained that the SAT test is culturally biased. However, there are some socioeconomic biases in the educational process, as well. Although I completed my undergraduate degree at the University of Pittsburgh tuition free, there was an intangible cost, which was emotional. I had no frame of reference as to what to expect at college. No friend or family member had ever come back from college over Christmas break or for the summer to tell this disadvantaged kid details or give advice about their college experiences.
A case in point occurred during my first few days at Pitt. I went to my classes and received the required syllabuses. Each syllabus, of course, noted the required textbooks for the course. Every day, I just sat there, waiting for the professors to hand out the books so I could start doing the reading assignments that were the subject of their lectures. During the first few days of classes, I saw this big line outside the university book center. The window displays of the Book Center displayed best-selling fictional novels and Pitt paraphernalia, not the course textbooks, which filled the inside of the store. Thus, I had no idea that I was supposed to get in line with the other students and purchase textbooks. I assumed the lines were full of new students waiting to buy Pitt paraphernalia before Saturday’s big football season opener. It never occurred to me that the lines were full of students buying textbooks for their classes.
Three days after I first noticed the lines, I asked a student coming from the bookstore why the lines were so long. I listened in disbelief. Do I really have to buy my own books? Deeply embarrassed, I returned to my room for my syllabuses, took my place in line, entered the sweating crowd, and ultimately bought my textbooks. Luckily, I had just received my last check from that summer’s internship, so I was able to afford the unplanned purchase of the textbooks.
I stayed focused on advancing my education and career. After I entered corporate America and was an engineer for a while, I wanted to earn a Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree. I ended up going to business school part-time while still working full-time as an engineer. Fortunately, my employer paid for my tuition, so I earned my MBA without incurring any student loans. After a long day of work, I would commute about one hour from my job near Baltimore’s BWI Airport down I-95 to the University of Maryland in College Park. I grabbed fast food in College Park, ate in my car, and then went to class from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. I did this for two to three nights per week for over two and a half years. I spent my free evenings studying or meeting with fellow students on my business case teams. There was no time for fun in those years. Once again, I was hungry to learn, grow, and achieve.
So, essentially, all my education was free – though I would say that I actually earned it. These academic degrees enabled me to have a successful career and a relatively comfortable lifestyle for my family. These days, while some question the value of a college degree, education made an incredible difference for me, and my education still pays huge dividends to this day. Ben Franklin said, “If a man empties his purse into his head, no man can take it away from him. An investment in knowledge always pays the best interest.”
I am elated to be a Servant Leader who knows, goes and shows the way, and because of this I am very wealthy for life.