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I am the first person in my family to go to college.
I haven’t a single grandparent, parent, aunt or uncle who attended college. My mother finished eighth grade and then finally got her GED when I was in middle school.
She raised four children by herself and I am the youngest and the first of her children to attend an institution of higher education. I am still not certain of my father’s identity but I am certain that no male figure supported my mother financially or otherwise in raising me.
So, how did I defy the odds and make it to college, and now to a position as a professor at the University of Texas at Austin?
I have many people to thank including my family members and friends and even acquaintances in my small hometown in Vermont, those who cheered me on as I moved closer to education and away from poverty and a need to depend on social services. But one program made higher education a real possibility for me. Upward Bound.
The U.S. Department of Education describes Upward Bound as a program which “provides opportunities for participants to succeed in their precollege performance and ultimately in their higher education pursuits.”
Donald Trump has threatened to eliminate the U.S. Department of Education if elected president. I am frightened by the possibilities, as an educator and as a beneficiary of the programs housed in the Department of Education. Without them, the gap in educational access widens and the American dream fades.
Upward Bound and programs like it attempt to narrow the gap on education access are in danger. These programs’ budgets keep getting cut and fewer students have access to them.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, the budget for Upward Bound has decreased to from $269,229,023 in 2012 to $263,412,436 in 2015.
That means that over 1,000 fewer young people have access to the program and essentially fewer poor youth have access to support that could help them out of poverty through higher education.
Upward Bound serves high school students from low-income families and high school students from families in which neither parent holds a bachelor’s degree.
That was me.
I was a participant in Upward Bound for the four years I was in high school.
I spent my summers on a college campus and received support as I studied, applied to colleges, and even as I completed financial aid forms. I worked hard and the program offered high challenge and high support to me.
I defied the odds, but I did not do it alone.
Still, in my hard working family of aunts, uncles, siblings, cousins, I am the only person who is not working an hourly wage, the only one with a salaried income. I am also the only person with a bachelor’s degree.
My older sister obtained an associate’s degree a few years ago at the age of 40.
First-generation college students at UT Austin seek me out when they learn that I have gone through what they are going through.
Getting to and through college as a first-generation student is not easy.
Certainly, some feel that a child’s education should be paid for by their parents.
I, like many of you reading this, am working hard to build up a college fund for my own daughter. However, my mother’s job pressing clothes at a dry cleaner did not allow for a college fund.
She could not help me consider where I might go to college. In fact, she deterred me as she did not believe “people like us” could go to college. It just wasn’t in the cards, according to her.
Without Upward Bound I would likely still rely on public assistance, as my mom did. I am proud that I am now an educator and a taxpayer.
We need to break the cycle of poverty and make education a possibility for more young people, regardless of the education level of their care givers.
We need to support the programs that work, make them accessible to more youth, encourage poor youth to believe that they are not stuck in poverty, that the American dream still exists. I live that dream every day and I am grateful for that privilege. I am eager for more youth to have such access and live the dream with me.
Roxanne Schroeder-Arce is an assistant professor and teaches theatre education in the Department of Theatre & Dance at the University of Texas at Austin and an affiliate in the Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies, the Department of Mexican American & Latina/o Studies and the Center for Women and Gender Studies. She is a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.