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Kevin Powell: How My 8th-Grade Educated Mother Got Me to College -- And How It Changed My Life

A college education allowed Powell to escape the poverty of his childhood. Now he's striving to keep the college dream alive for kids in similar circumstances.

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My mother raised me to go to college. From the time I could walk and talk, she constantly told me how important an education was, and how it could greatly improve my life as compared to hers. That is because my mother is the product of the old American South, growing up in the era of “For Coloreds Only” and “For Whites Only” signs. Blatant racism and oppression worked together to limit her possibilities to an eighth grade education, and to picking South Carolina cotton. When my mother migrated North, to Jersey City, New Jersey, where I was born and raised, she found more employment opportunities, but because of the woeful neglect and absence of my father, and generations of poverty my family had known since slavery, my mother knew that she had to do something to break the vicious cycle of little to no possibilities beyond our meager earnings that awaited me.

So my mother taught me to read and write as early as age three. She also told me I could be something important in life, like a lawyer or a doctor, if I just did well in school. When I think back on it, I realize that my mother was a young woman in her 20s, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. Even though she herself was never a participant, she caught the remarkable spirit of that historic period. Educational opportunities were often discussed during the movement. I believe that my mother heard those whispers and transferred them, along with the aspirations that had been snatched from her own impoverished life, to me.

By the time I was in the fifth grade, my mother could no longer help me with my schoolwork. I, an only child, became so angry with her. I think it was the first time I was ever ashamed of my mother. I regret feeling as such; because the hardcore truth is that my mother is one of the smartest human beings I’ve ever met; that rare person who could make something from nothing, in spite of the poverty, on any given day. That rare person who in spite of her own educational limitations, and the fact that she, herself, had never set foot on a college campus, knew that college would inevitably transform her son’s life.

So literally from the beginning of high school I started to send away for college brochures. I read with amazement about far-off schools like Pepperdine University in California, and I often dreamed of what college would be like for me. By the time I was a senior in high school I was very skilled at the college application and SAT preparation process, and I simply brought home the admission and financial aid forms to my mother. I told her I had read through everything, and that she could simply sign by the X. She did each and every one of them, as a willing participant in her son’s path to higher education.

I settled on Rutgers University, the state university of New Jersey, and my life was changed forever. It was there, in my first year, where I stumbled into the anti-apartheid movement, Reverend Jesse Jackson’s first presidential campaign, and a kind of intellectual and cultural stimulation I had never experienced. I found myself thinking new thoughts, reading new kinds of books and, for the first time in my eighteen years, studying the great contributions of Black people to the world, in America, in the West Indies, and in Africa. My mind was expanding. My soul was churning. I was awakened and I am quite sure that college exposure is what made me the person I am today.

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