Education as Inspiration: The Benefits of Higher Ed for Underserved Communities

Hugo Palacios | Published November 25, 2020
Hugo is passionate about guiding and uplifting low-income students through higher education. He is pursuing a double major in Education and Sociology at the University of California – Riverside, and plans to start his career as an education counselor for at-risk youth.
student looking through binoculars

In low-income communities, we are always told if we want to be successful, we have to go to college. We are told the cliches about how earning a degree means we will make more money, have more opportunities, and live better lives. But how exactly does higher education provide that to us? Why should I dedicate four or more years to school when I need money and a job right now? Is it worth it to go into debt and earn a degree when I can apply for an entry-level job today?

These are the questions students from underserved communities must ask when planning their futures. I come from Lake County, California, and my family embodies many of the struggles people face here. Broken homes and a lack of resources often make it difficult for us to succeed. From what I have seen in my own community, our options are significantly limited without a degree. I have seen my parents and many of my peers forced to work unfulfilling jobs because they did not or could not go to college.

While earning a degree does open the door to better jobs, the true value in education is that it allows us to discover and pursue our passions. For those of us who grew up in difficult environments, our passions are what can help us rise above the negativities we face in our lives. In my mind, enjoying your work is just as important as what it pays. Nothing is worth the price of misery, and higher education gives us the tools to better pursue our passions and make fulfilling careers out of them.

The effects of not continuing our education can be felt throughout low-income communities. We often find ourselves barred from many paths without a degree and see our parents and friends struggle to make ends meet because they don’t qualify for higher-paying jobs. These effects don’t just emerge over time, either. They can be felt soon after high school.

My friend Jacob Schmidt and I grew up together, and his story exemplifies the struggles we face in education when coming from low-income communities. Jacob, now 21 years old, comes from an impoverished family and was homeless during high school. He felt the pressure of adult priorities and responsibilities from a young age – he had to help support his family and find a place to stay while  He got a job at a mechanic shop but struggled to balance school while working 40 hours a week, and eventually had to drop out.

Today, he still works as a mechanic for a little over minimum wage. If he had finished high school and gone on to complete a mechanic certification program, he would be making $30 an hour for the exact same work he has been doing for years: diagnosing vehicle problems, changing oil, and replacing tires. Instead, he works overtime every week so that he can make ends meet.

Still, Jacob is happy with the work he does. He loves cars and builds and works on his own in his spare time. Jacob wants to own his own home and be able to ride dirt bikes on the weekends, but living on minimum wage in California, it is difficult for him to fund his projects and find time for hobbies. If he had the certification to work at a higher-paying shop, he would have more resources to pursue his passion – building custom cars and dirt bikes. Jacob is currently getting his GED, and plans to go to trade school and become a certified mechanic. The jobs he can secure with his certification will let him better pursue his passion and live the life he wants to live.

As individuals from under-resourced communities, we often feel that we do not have the time, the money, or what it takes to pursue higher education. It can feel like we are faced with only one option, which seems out of reach for many: four challenging years at an expensive university that we don’t know if we can afford. We are conditioned to believe a four-year institution is the only valid education when, in reality, this may not be the path that fits our needs or interests. The stigma associated with trade schools, community colleges, and Job Corps often makes us shun these options. They can open the door for us to follow our dreams but are often overlooked. Each of these different educational paths can empower us with specific skills so that we can work higher-paying jobs we enjoy.

The journey through higher education can be difficult, but the benefits are much more important than simply jobs and money, especially for those from challenging backgrounds. By persevering through the obstacles and difficulties that come with higher education, we motivate and pave the way for others who can relate to our struggles. The example we set by pursuing our passions through higher education gives our people a story that they can draw inspiration from as they follow their own dreams. For students from under-resourced communities, higher education can help us break the cycles of poverty and addiction that we come from. Oftentimes, the alternative to chasing our dream is bleak and unfulfilling. Both following our passions and not following them come with struggles and challenges. But when we use education as a tool to do what we love, we can rise above the negativities we face in our communities and help the next generation do so as well.