Higher Education

“I never want to be in a neighborhood where I’m shot at again.”

A first-generation college graduate reflects on moving up America’s class ladder

When Mario Martinez went to Liberty University, a private Christian college in Lynchburg, Virginia, the affluence astonished him. A student’s car would break down and she’d have a new one within a couple of weeks. “It was mind blowing,” he said. “To see that people can have so much.”

And Liberty – with a median family income of about $75,000 a year – isn’t even that rich compared to what you will find at America’s most prestigious private colleges, where incomes are closer to $200,000 a year or more.

But Liberty is a long way from what Mario knew. He grew up in a poor neighborhood in Langley Park, Maryland. “We would hear police every night, we’d hear gunshots, we’d hear people scream,” he said.

He was in college to get out. “I never want to be in a neighborhood where I’m shot at again,” he said. “For me moving up social class means having the privilege, benefits and opportunities of a safe neighborhood.”

My colleagues and I at APM Reports are working on a documentary about college and social class. We want to know what people gain – and what they lose – when they change class. And what college has to do with it.

Related: Are America’s colleges promoting social mobility?

I was especially curious to know what Mario had to say about education and social class because I first met him ten years ago in a remedial writing class at a community college in Maryland. I documented his first year at Montgomery College for a radio program called Rising by Degrees.

Mario eventually transferred to Liberty, got a bachelor’s degree in psychology, and is now working on an M.B.A. at the University of Maryland.

Mario says when he first set out to get a college degree, he wasn’t really thinking about making money. He just wanted a better life.

What he observed among his peers at Liberty is that money had not just afforded them new cars, but entirely different life experiences. He says his classmates seemed to have an expectation that they belonged anywhere in the world they wanted to be; they exuded a kind of confidence and openness that startled him. He grew up the opposite – defensive and guarded.

“Going to Liberty, I was trying figure out how people that didn’t grow up in a rough neighborhood interacted with each other,” he said. “What I learned was that people are more open, they’re more transparent, they’re not afraid that somebody will come back and try to harm them.”

Another thing he learned about? Math camp.

Once when he was lost in a math class, he asked his classmates – did you learn this stuff in high school? A classmate said yes, he’d learned it at math camp. His parents had paid for him to go. Mario had never heard of math camp. It was one of those mind-blowing moments when he realized what a divide there was between him and so many of his classmates.

Now that he’s working on a professional degree, I wondered whether Mario feels like he’s in a higher social class. “No,” he told me, laughing. “I am way below the federal poverty guideline right now.”

That’s because he’s surviving on a meager stipend as a graduate assistant, plus he has a ton of student loans. But is he in a different social class?

He acknowledged that yes, he probably is, though the idea makes him a bit uncomfortable because he doesn’t think he’s in any way “above” people he grew up with, like his mother who cleans houses for a living.

For Mario, the most valuable thing about moving up is the safety that comes with it. Even if his various degrees don’t mean he ends up making lots of money, he’s sure he won’t have to live in a dangerous neighborhood again. And if he has kids, they won’t either.

Another thing he’s sure about? If kids in his family ever struggle in a math class, he’s going to find them a math camp. And pay for it.

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