From Napa Valley Register: Your Turn: Varsity Blues: Affordable college is essential for our democracy

April 17, 2019, Lee Bycel

The college admissions scandal that has dominated our news has become draining and repetitive. It is time to explore the much more important story at its core. But before we do, how about this for punishment: For all those who take a plea deal or are found guilty, pay full tuition and expenses for four deserving students for their four years of college. Points for justice, and not just on the lacrosse field.

Now, the more important story: The soaring cost of college, the number of high school grads who lack the financial ability to attend, and the crippling indebtedness taken on by those who do, whether they graduate or not.

The future of democracy is based on an educated citizenry. Abraham Lincoln was adamant when he stated, “I can only say that I view [education] as the most important subject which we as a people may be engaged in.” The institutions of democracy may be threatened when college education is limited to only those who can afford it or have the privilege of getting special preparation. Our society is greatly enriched by college graduates from all socio-economic backgrounds.

I have the privilege of serving on a scholarship committee at Napa Valley Community Foundation. The Fruit of the Vine scholarship was established with priority given to first generation college students, children of the men and women who work as laborers in the wine industry, and young people with tremendous financial need. The partial tuition scholarship is now granted for all four years of college.

These are students who have excelled in high school in academics and extracurricular activities, without the support available to affluent families. Preference is given to those attending California public universities. They do not have private tutors for the SAT. Many have parents who have never filled out a scholarship application or FAFSA. No special coaches for academic subjects. For most, no great summer opportunities for enrichment as many need to work to help their families make ends meet, or take care of younger siblings.

I wish the stories of these young people were featured on the evening news and in our media.

In reading dozens of essays and applications, I was particularly taken by what it means to be poor and Latino in the Napa Valley. The students’ work ethic, how they value education, their career goals, their passion and compassion, and the importance of this opportunity left a deep impression on me. We need more of these students in our institutions of higher learning. They will contribute greatly to our society.

Meet four of them. (Some information has been edited to protect their identities). Their words provide great insight and inspiration. Listen to the voices of a future police officer, psychologist, attorney and nurse:

  • I would like to be a Child Clinical Psychologist with my own private practice or with a state institution. I came about this profession as many people in my family struggle with debilitating mental health issues. I want to gain skills and knowledge on how I can help people around me and better the world. I also want to make it far in my educational career for my parents. Both of my parents did not continue school past Grade 7. They had a poor and challenging upbringing in Mexico that I am thankful that I didn’t have to experience. I am not only carrying out my own dreams but my parents’ dreams as well which to mean, means more than anything.
  • I will be the first in my family to attend a four-year university. However, my journey has been incredibly difficult. As a young child, I lived in fear that my mom and I wouldn’t make it through the night. I witnessed the most horrific and tragic brutality one can imagine. I am proud to say that I am a survivor who is still standing today and continues to excel and make an impact.
  • I am a rose that grew from the concrete. As a Latina, first-generation, low-income student, my weaknesses have become my strengths … My interest in nursing was sparked when my mom was diagnosed with a serious illness. She has no retirement fund; she has worked her whole life to secure my future, not her own. I am more motivated than ever to dedicate my life to mitigate her chronic pain as a nurse, and by extension, the pain of others.

Perhaps one day, we will pay less attention to the thorns in our society (like those who participated in the Varsity Blue scandal) and highlight the many roses that can flourish if they are given the nutrients, like scholarship assistance, to attend college and pursue careers and dreams from which we will all benefit.

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