YPNG Mentor George Lee
How Education Elevates Your Life
YPNG Mentor George Lee grew up in a low-income neighborhood where few people graduated from high school and almost no one went to college. But George overcame his situation and recently graduated from the University of Oklahoma with dual Masters Degrees in Human Resources and Education. George succeeded because early in his life he saw that education offered a way out of the economic situation faced by the people in his community. The record of achievement he built in high school was the currency that let him get the scholarships and grants he needed to pay for his education and the choice of several highly regarded universities to attend. By taking responsibility for himself early in his life and setting high goals, he has opened doors to many opportunities and has a bright future as he starts his career.
Learning to Take Responsibility
I was born and raised in a low-income section of Bryan, Texas, the town where Texas A&M University is located. Few of the people I knew growing up had graduated from high school including my parents. There was a lot of crime in our neighborhood and a large police presence with a lot of people I knew going in and out of jail. So I faced the same stereotypical woes as many other young black men and women growing up in this kind of environment.
I was a discipline problem when I started elementary school. But I soon figured out that I had to suffer the consequences for my bad behavior, not my parents and came to the conclusion that I would have to be responsible for my actions. That was something that I think set me apart from my peers in elementary and middle school. Teachers recognized that I wanted something different out of life than the kids I was around. They encouraged me and helped me navigate my life.
Learning the Value of Education
I had two teachers in particular who tried to motivate me by teaching me the value of education. The first was Mrs. Peebles, who was my third-grade teacher. She was the first person who helped me understand that education was more than just going to school. Education was a resource for opportunities that would let me change my circumstances in life. The other teacher was Mrs. Farley, who was my Speech and Communications teacher who I first met in second grade. She showed me different opportunities education could provide me and this motivated me to work harder.
Understanding that education could provide more opportunities was important to me and is something I want to stress to those of you growing up in circumstances like mine. Too often kids like me coming from low income, African American communities, are only presented a few options to get out of our situation like football, basketball, singing or raping. Mrs. Farley taught me that with an education there were a lot of other options for my life that I could take.
Here is what I want to say to other young people about how education can lead to success in life based on my own experience now that I have gotten my degrees:
Education is elevation. Education elevates you and how you understand yourself and the world and empowers you.
Education is multifaceted. There are multiple ways you can be educated and empowered. You need to figure out what kind of educational opportunities are available to you that will make you better than what you are.
You have to figure out where you are in life and how education fits at each point in your life. For example, when I was in high school sitting in a chemistry class trying to learn the periodic table or in a physics class, I was thinking how does learning this help me to be able to get a job and eat. If all I wanted to do was be a laborer, I know these classes wouldn’t apply. But if I set high goals for myself and wanted to be an engineer or scientist, I could see that it was something I had to learn first at this point in my life to be able to get into college and reach my goal. By me being able to understand how these subjects applied later in my life and how I could use them to my advantage, I became more interested in these classes. So if you are a student sitting in a class and you are getting frustrated and getting discouraged, think about what is being told to you and how you can apply it or not apply it later in your life and how it will help you reach your goals. You can also think about units in a particular subject. For example, you might find that if you are in biology class knowing about photosynthesis will be more helpful to you if you want to be a chemist as opposed to dissecting an animal, something someone who wants to be a doctor would consider important. There is a concept in my community called finessing. Finessing means how can I come in and make the most of this situation by doing the least and getting the most. When it comes to education, you have to figure out how you can get the most out of your education to be able to reach your personal goals.
You also need to understand that it is important that everyone go on and get some kind of education and training after high school. There are going to be less and less opportunities for people with just a high school degree and your grades are what open up future opportunities after high school. Remember that “nobody can do everything but everyone can do something”. For some people, going on to trade school might be a better option than going on to college. You have to understand that the world we live in is really shrinking and that competition is getting fierce. You have to presume that getting a good job is going to continue to get more difficult and that you will have to get yourself an education beyond high school. With a good education, you will be ready and able to compete in the job market and you can live comfortably.
The Monetary Value of Good Grades
I would tell somebody who is in seventh or eighth grade and getting ready to go to high school to make sure their focus is on their grades. When you are going to high school you should think of grades like an adult thinks of a credit score. That score influences a lot of what you can and cannot do like buying a house or the car you want. The higher your credit scores the greater the opportunities you have to live a good life. Kids entering high school should think of their grades just like a credit score. The higher your grades the better schools you can attend and the more scholarships and financial aid you will receive. So just like an adult who needs a high credit score to get a good house or car, good grades for high school student gets you access to good schools and money to pay for your education so you don’t end up with a lot of student loans that will follow you when you get out of college. You need this financial literacy when you start high school so you understand that good grades are a currency that will let you finance your college education. Good grades are a real equalizer if you come from a low-income family and your parents are not going to write you a check to pay for your education. If your grades are high, you have a chance to get into the best schools in the county.
Focusing on Specific Careers and Colleges
I would tell upperclassmen to start focusing on specific careers so you can begin deciding what kind of education you are going to need to get after high school so you enter a career that will let you live the life you want. I started taking career assessment tests in high school to help me figure out what I could be in life. After taking the tests, I figured I could go to college and take classes that would let me be an entrepreneur or study political science and become a teacher or a politician. I was accepted to several colleges. I did not think staying around Bryan, Texas was a good idea even though Texas A & M was right there and I was born in Aggie land. One of my teachers, who I first met in seventh grade, encouraged me to go to the University of Oklahoma. She thought it was better if I acclimated myself to a new situation and new surroundings. Sometimes hometowns can be a booby trap because you know everybody and you can have a hard time breaking away from some of those childhood friends you want to show you are loyal to but who are not trying to do what you are with your life.
Scholarships and Financial Aid
When I was out looking for scholarships and grants, my counselors got me started. But after I was out there and had a framework, I began finding those opportunities on my own. If I could go back in time, I would have spent more effort looking for scholarships and grants. Now that I have graduated with my Masters degrees, I know that if I had taken searching for financial aid more seriously, I could have gotten all of my education covered where now I have a few student loans I could have avoided.
When looking for a grant of scholarship, specificity is key. What I mean by that is specifically define your demographic. I am an African American student who grew up in a single family, low-income home and am a first generation college student. That is a very specific description. Being that specific allowed me to go out and look for those scholarships and grants targeted to my specific demographic. But don’t think from what I just said that you have to be some kind of racial minority to get a good scholarship. There is a lot of financial aid available to all low-income students particularly in Oklahoma where there is a lot of poverty in the state. There are also scholarships for people who want to go into a specific major like engineering, science, education or art as well as for women and people with certain religious affiliations. When you get started on your search, find those counselors and teachers who can show you around.
Get Involved in Other Activities
It is also important when you go to college to get involved in something other than just pure academic classes. I got into the debate club and it helped me articulate my thoughts and because we traveled to debate contests it broadened my thought process nationally and internationally. I believe that extracurricular activities help you apply what you learn in the classroom outside of the classroom and gain knowledge about your self and the world,
My Future Goals
I just graduated with dual Masters Degrees in Human Resources and Education. My goal is to have my own firm in the diversity and inclusion industry ten years from now where I am able to help companies have multiple perspectives represented in their workforce. My firm will talk about things like race, gender equality and discrimination in the workplace. I also want to show companies how they can attract and retain a more diversified workforce, deal with micro aggression or talk about diversity and inclusion. I would like to do this on an international scale and travel the world teaching concepts of diversity and inclusion. I have been trained to be able to take on this work in college. Right now I am looking for jobs in the human resource departments of larger companies where I can build the experience I need to be able to later go out and start my own firm.