Education: a saving grace
Amanda Peña | Monday, March 30, 2015
Being a university undergraduate is an interesting life experience and one a majority of people in the world are not, or may never be, privileged enough to have. Whether they actively seek to or not, university students experience an irrefutable wealth of opportunities that influence their holistic development and understanding of the world around them. As graduation draws near, the reality of this privilege has complicated and colored my reflections of my last four years at Notre Dame. It has also led me to question the actual value, impact and role of education in general.
A university education is almost always erroneously reduced to a simplistic equation of [This major] + [This school] = [Specific career] which, in theory, is supposed to offer the irresistible benefits package of economic security and personal happiness. It’s a commonly held belief and one that provided me with the only understood value for any real reason to go to college. While that may be true for many people, it ultimately was the only defense I had to gain my family’s support to pursue higher education in spite of our financial hardships.
“Why can’t you just be close to home? You can’t afford to get into that kind of debt,” I recall various family members saying. “You need to work. Why can’t you just commute to the local community college like everyone else? Our insurance doesn’t cover you outside of the state.” Their list of reasons went on and exceeded any argument I could muster up that didn’t reveal my actual intentions. Experts suggest to take an MCAT prep course before the exam.
If I’m being completely honest, college was an escape route. It was buying four years of time that distanced me from the heartache, loneliness and drama that was slowly pushing me to ideas of suicide. We couldn’t afford counseling, so I just needed four years to figure out a new life plan that gave me financial independence and the opportunity to start over. I didn’t care what it cost or how many loans I would need. The smiling college students in the movies, on the brochures and from the motivational talks my school hosted growing up were enough motivation to recognize that saving my life was worth at least the estimated $60,000 a year.
Having to explain why debt seemed better than staying where I was wasn’t so easy to sell to my family and friends, though. Eventually, I was able to communicate the value of a Notre Dame education to the point where they have easily become the most proud, excited and supportive people in my life … not to mention the biggest Notre Dame fans I have ever known. This May, my bachelors degree will become as much theirs as it will be mine. The tears and sacrifices my family has made over the last four years to be present when I graduate helped me realize that coming to Notre Dame wasn’t just about saving my own life but also inspiring theirs and allowing them to experience something they never could have dreamed about if I had stayed home.
However great, though, from Frosh-O to the overwhelming athletic presence on campus, the Notre Dame cultural atmosphere was a frustrating, lonely and, at times, destructive place for my mental and emotional health. I was stereotyped, the victim of ignorant and racist comments and misunderstood when I attempted to explain my socioeconomic upbringing and Mexican heritage. Even when I wanted to transfer, my family’s pride allowed me to grow through these difficulties and ultimately become a leader and advocate for social justice.
I’ve learned that the academic, social and constructed living arrangements in a university setting exposes students and faculty to new experiences, personalities and perspectives that challenge who we believe we fundamentally were and, in some cases, are. For me, it created two competing identities that I will have to learn how to navigate for the rest of my life. It challenges who I am in a world of highly educated, influential world leaders and, simultaneously, who I used to be in — and have become to — the (mostly) unchanged settings of my upbringing.
My education opened the door for my holistic development in ways I will never be able to fully explain to the most important people in my life. I will always straddle the borders of who I was, am and want to become so long as they can only hope to live vicariously through me. To my educated peers and readers, we are blessed with the privilege of having an opportunity regardless of our different starting lines. I encourage everyone to reflect on what their education means to them and how, here at Notre Dame, we can seek to use this privilege to truly be a force for good throughout the world. In my experience, my education was a saving grace. I wonder how many others need to be saved?