My mother grew up in a poor family in one of the poorest states in the nation, yet all her brothers attended New Mexico State University and graduated without the burden of loans. Their father, a hardscrabble rural farmer, couldn’t contribute much other than the conviction that his hard-working sons would be successful, and they all were—two of them going on to work for the Bureau of Land Management where they earned good money and, eventually, fine retirements.
Ask my uncles what got them where they ended up, and you’ll get one answer. Hard work. Ask my mother? She’ll add, “and being boys.” None will mention being white (black people weren’t even admitted to NMSU until after 1940, and Hispanics, despite being a huge portion of the general population were sorely under-represented as students at mid-century). Nor will they mention being the beneficiaries of New Deal programs that had supported the arts, provided jobs to communities, and funded the construction of buildings throughout New Mexico and on the NMSU campus during the Depression. My uncles will claim their intelligence, not their well-educated teachers and well-funded public schools and retirement programs, fired the rocket that shot them to retired comfort and success.
Being a girl held my mother back, but it didn’t get in the way of my attending NMSU in 1980, nor did being poor. At that time, low tuition combined with Basic Educational Opportunity Grants, student jobs, and scholarships enabled me to get a diploma, a smart suit, and a well-paying job in California that eventually led to
graduate school and a career as a college professor. All without money from my parents. All without the need for debt.
If I were graduating from high school this year in New Mexico, Illinois, or any other state, I’d be facing a very different future. Debt and anxiety would be my lot, rather than financial security and the decades of useful, rewarding labor I’ve enjoyed.
When I consider the obstacles in front of young people across this country, especially those whose families did not benefit from white privilege, I mourn for them and for our culture. When I consider the disdain the current administration shows for facts, science, and the humanities, I mourn for this generation and those that follow. If, as so many Americans proclaim, our children are our national treasure, we must treat them as such and ensure they all have access to free or affordable educational opportunities that challenge and nourish them—minds and bodies—no matter their race, class or gender. No matter where, or to whom, they are born.
As a citizen and recipient of unearned advantages, like those enjoyed by my uncles as accidents of birth, I believe I must work on behalf of all young people to steer this magnificent nation toward a better, more equitable and sustainable future. That is the debt I acknowledge, and that is the debt I will pay.