Dear Mr. President,
A few years ago I decided to create my own Christmas tradition of writing a letter to you about something I would like to see in the world. I often refer to this as my adult version of a letter to Santa. I know that it’s unlikely that you will read or respond to these letters, though you did respond to my letter two years ago when I wrote to you about Sandy Hook. I thank you for that. I mostly do this as a physical exercise of releasing my own hope out into the world because I feel that is what this joyous day is all about.
This year I want to talk to you about hope and opportunity. In order to do this I need to explain my background a little and then explain why I’m heartbroken to realize that my story is not possible everywhere in this country. In fact, it is my belief that my story is not possible in my current home of Cincinnati where more than half of our children are currently living in poverty.
I grew up poor, and my family was homeless for large portions of my childhood including all four years of high school. When I was twelve years old I was sitting at a public bus stop bench, and my mind was filled with thoughts much bigger than me. In the sixth grade I had only known other poor children that went to the same elementary school as me. However, the city of San Marcos, CA, where I lived at the time, only had one junior high school so all of the children from all of the elementary schools across the city ended up attending San Marcos Junior High. Quite suddenly I became even more fully aware of the limitations that bonded me to a life of poverty. I sat on that bus stop bench, and I reflected on the middle class experiences of my classmates. I wondered what made their life so very different from my own. Why was I hoping for food when they were hoping for concert tickets? That day on the bus stop bench I decided that the difference between their families and mine was the education level of our parents, and I made a promise to myself on that bus bench that day that I would get a college education.
That was a much harder proposition than I had imagined. Being able to graduate from high school given the stresses of homelessness was only provided to me because, quite frankly, I illegally went to a school in a different city in order to have access to a higher quality education. I also had to constantly work well ahead in the syllabus because it was only a matter of time before another tragedy would strike that would put me behind at school. For example, during my senior year the realities of homelessness caused me to catch a fever that escalated to 105 degrees. I was finally taken to the emergency room for the only care available to me, but, by the time I got well again, I was many weeks behind at school. This, and many events like it, have the potential to derail our pursuits. I was really lucky this happened during my senior year because the ripple effect that followed only had the opportunity to impact my senior year grades after I already submitted my college applications. When people ask about my success I often explain how much of it was based on luck because I’ve become perilously close to losing it all time and time again.
I was the first in my immediate family to make an attempt at college even though I was quite intimidated by the cost of attending. I was accepted into all six colleges that I applied to, but I was afraid to attend them because I knew that, without a net, if I fell while in college it would be hard to pick myself up again. When you grow up in poverty you become very well acquainted with heartbreak early in life and you spend the rest of your life producing some behaviors that those in the middle class don’t quite understand in order to avoid that heartbreak again at all costs. I saw that it would cost $13,000 to attend school for one year. That might not be much to you, but my entire family was living on, quite literally, $7,800 per year at the time. In my case, when I graduated from high school I decided not to go to a four year college and instead I entered the community college system in Southern California in an attempt to better my station in life at a more reasonable cost. I could attend community college for a total of $11 per credit hour. This was back in 1998 but it is still a reasonable $46 per credit hour today, which lowers so many barriers of entry for people like me. While I attended community college I was also working full time because I have never had the luxury of going to school full time. This was only possible because the community college offered courses in the evenings and weekends and they had many locations making it easier to get to class using limited means of transportation.
Once my general education credits were out of the way, I needed to find a traditional four year school that I could attend in order to receive my bachelors degree while still allowing me to work full time. As you are likely well aware, there are many for-profit institutions out there that take advantage of people that grew up like me by providing low value educational services at a very high cost. I was lucky to find the University of Massachusetts that offered a way for me to finish a liberal arts degree online. If online education did not become an option in the 2000’s then it’s very possible that I would still be working at near minimum wage today. Although it gave me flexibility, getting my degree online still meant 4-5 hours of sleep per night for the marathon six total years it took me to obtain an unimpressive liberal arts degree. This, at best, qualified me to work as an assistant answering the phones at a law firm. Quite frankly, I only got that job because I could “look the part” even after a childhood spent in poverty. I remember when one of the attorneys fired a recruiter because they “had the nerve” to send a candidate for a secretary position that had a Southern accent.
The only reason that I am not answering phones still today is that I found the MBA program at Xavier University that I could take during the evenings while I worked. However, the cost of that education was a huge gamble for me as I knew that just covering the tuition alone would cost me over $60,000. I would have had to work three or four years straight, and devote every cent I made to my education, in order to have enough take home pay to afford that tuition. I feel very fortunate that my gamble did pay off, and I will say that education was worth every cent I paid (and am still paying) for it. The upside to now having a career in business as an ex-homeless kid is that I have found my hustle to be far superior than other job candidates. Having an inherent understanding that nothing is handed to you is a huge competitive advantage for me. I thank the culture of poverty for filling my life with so many strong values, such as the power of a strong work ethic and the beauty of authenticity, that contribute to my success today.
Now let’s talk about why I feel my story would not be possible in the city I currently live in. Although we like to consider our country as the home for accomplishing dreams, I currently live in the city of Cincinnati where over half of our children are living in poverty. My story is not possible here because even if a child is willing to commit acts of civil disobedience like I did in order to get a quality high school education, options for obtaining a four year degree while working full time are not available here. At our local community college, Cincinnati State, students have to pay $148 per credit hour before the cost of fees, books, and transportation are factored in. Cincinnati State does have articulation agreements with many four year colleges, but you would be hard pressed to find a four year university that offers the entire program during the evenings and weekends. The University of Cincinnati degree programs all have some on-campus component and those classes are taught during the day. Even their MBA degree is only offered for daytime students. Xavier University offers a program for a weekend degree in liberal arts, but that comes at a cost of $635 per credit hour. I had a conversation with one of their professors that felt they were no better than some of the for-profit colleges in that regard because graduates of that liberal arts program will have an impossible time paying off those student loans given the job options available to them after graduation. That leaves us with online degree programs, which do not fair well in the marketplace.
It is my belief that had I been raised in Cincinnati, OH or Hattiesburg, MS or many other cities across this land then my dreams as an ambitious 12 year old on a bus bench would not have become a reality. If quality education was available to all from kindergarten on through college at an affordable price, then the income inequality in this country would be a fraction of what it is today. Instead we get to allow the middle class to believe that those of us that grew up in poverty stay there because we are lazy or make bad decisions when instead the real values we learn growing up poor would make us succeed in spades in this middle class life that is child’s play in comparison to our reality. I know because I have experienced both. Instead our lives often become a tragic pattern of sometimes dysfunctional behaviors that we use to try to escape a cycle of heartbreak again and again.
I am not asking for much. I am only asking that every child in this nation be afforded the same educational opportunities that are afforded to your own daughters without the middle class barriers of entry that exist today. I ask for measures to secure education for anyone who wants it because somewhere in Cincinnati right now there is a little twelve year old girl that is also filled with hope on this Christmas day in spite of the tragedy she sees all around her. This world will be better if a hope that strong is able to survive and fill this world with greatness.
Melody A. Smith Jones