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The gift of education

Observer Editorial Board | Friday, February 15, 2013

Stop. Look around you. Where are you? Maybe you’re somewhere on the Notre Dame or Saint Mary’s campuses. You might be sitting at your desk in the offices of a major financial firm in New York or Chicago. Or you could be using medical expertise to provide health care to people in need in another country.
How did you get there? Not in the literal sense of modes of transportation, but in terms of the experiential journey you took to arrive at this particular physical location and moment in your life.
Now ask yourself – could you have gotten to that place without an excellent education?
Chances are the answer is a resounding “no.”
From the time most of us began preschool, higher education and career aspirations were probably a topic of occasional dinnertime discussion or at least casual thought. Whether you dreamed of being a doctor or lawyer, a teacher or CEO, those dreams were predicated on progressing through at least 18 years of education before attaining your respective goal. We understood such long-term goals couldn’t be achieved overnight, and hard work and perseverance in school were necessary means to the end of realizing our personal ambitions.
No matter where we grew up, we were lucky to have access to the kind of educational experiences that paved the path to where we find ourselves right now.
But for too many young people in the United States today, those educational opportunities are declining in number and quality every day. Too many students graduate high school unable to read at an 8th grade level. Schools all over the country fail to meet expectations set by standardized testing.
This is a serious problem in need of equally serious attention.
For those schools unable to fully meet the needs of their students, the impact of such a lack of resources and opportunities is felt years and decades after children leave school and become adults. These limitations hinder students’ ability to succeed in every field of the workforce, from engineering and medicine to business and journalism.
Our nation, exceptional in many measurable areas, ranks only 17th in education among its developed peers, according to a 2012 global report by the education firm Pearson. We are losing educational ground quickly, and this trend bears negative implications for American innovation, technological advancement and global participation.
President Barack Obama acknowledged the unsettling decline of American education in recent years and pledged to take action to improve educational shortcomings during his State of the Union address Tuesday. But he alone can’t bring the entire nation to a higher standard of academic excellence.
That’s where we, as Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s students, come in.
Sound like a lofty goal? It is. But we’re not telling everyone that we have to commit our lives to teaching or serving as school principals. We can have a tangible impact on children’s futures even during our undergraduate years. Since the earliest years of education are arguably the most formative, we can take it upon ourselves to start tutoring at the Robinson Center or La Casa de Amistad. We can work as camp counselors during the summer. Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s partner with local schools and organizations to run mentoring programs for young people in the South Bend community. Even the simple act of a friendly hug can mean more than you know.
If teaching seems like a feasible career path for you, apply for Teach for America or the Alliance for Catholic Education to make a difference in both public and private underserved schools across the country.
Even if we don’t see teaching or school administration in our career paths, we have countless opportunities to contribute our own voices to the education debate. Whether we realize it or not, education will continue to affect us even after our own formal educational experiences end. And whether we pledge to volunteer in local schools, dedicate our lives to shaping education policy or even just serve on the local PTA, we can make a difference.
It’s not enough to sit on the sidelines while the education debate rages on before our eyes once we leave the education system. We have been educated at a world-class institution of higher learning, and we have the power to use the broad base of knowledge we’ve gained in college to change the future of American education. So how will you share the gift of education that has been given to you with the rest of the country?