Why we should protect Pell grants: Cocktail party fodder!

I was going to write about a recurring theme at the Democratic and Republican National Conventions: opportunity in this country. There is a lot of talk about opening doors to the middle class and supporting education. The only reason I was able to attend college was with a Pell grant and federal loans, but I’m afraid admitting that comes across as a woe-is-me schtick when I really want to emphasis how fortunate I was to come of age in a good economy. (Thanks, Clinton administration!) Sure, I was low-income when I went to school, but by grace of opportunity in this country, my circumstances have changed for the better, including the last four years – so much so, that I cringe when I read my own blog, (“Look, I got Lipo!” DAGGER. I’m the worst.) I’ll focus this post instead on the more subtle gains public elementary education and a Pell grant-funded degree have gotten me.

1. Cocktail Party Fodder. When I spent a semester living off credit cards and my university meal plan at an exchange school in Grantham, England we spent a lot of time in class talking about British architecture. I remember the topic of flying buttresses was being dissected (their merit, their silly name) when the Dean* walked into the lecture hall and said something to the effect, “don’t get discouraged learning this. You’ll need this information to sound interesting at cocktail parties”. Sure, he was joking, but was he? I’ve never made a penny off my knowledge of British architecture, but I’ve been a hit at plenty of cocktail parties. I always think of that man when something bizarrely cultured comes out of my mouth**. It’s true. Part of the gain of higher learning isn’t in the book facts, it’s having an overall exposure to the world that helps grease social connections – Which begets opportunity.

2. Comfort around all types of people. I imagine the Duggars are a satisfied bunch being sequestered three hours away from the rest of civilization in their white-washed megamansion, but how boring is that? I went to public school with all kinds of faces. It’s subtle, but I realized how nice that world frame was after listening to Julian Castro’s speech last night when I found out he was the first latino keynote speaker a Democratic National Convention. It hadn’t phased me he was hispanic. I actually think it’s weird. Right? How could they go this long without a latino speaker? Most of the world is brown, people. But what is so very, very odd to me is how white one of our political parties is.

3. Less education debt! Obviously Pell grants are free money for education, but it’s worth repeating how amazing that can be for a person starting out with no resources. In Julian Castro’s speech last night, he illustrated the example of when Mitt Romney answered a student’s question as to how to start a business and become successful. Romney’s answer? “Borrow money from your parents”.  The truth is we don’t all have rich or even generous parents. There has to be hope and opportunity for everyone here or we all suffer. I was extremely lucky to have benefitted from a Pell grant. I know I was lucky. I live every day being thankful. We have to keep opportunities like this available to everyone in order to have a better society.

While I was watching the two national conventions, I found myself agreeing and disagreeing with both sides. Yes, I see where Mitt Romney was coming from when he mentioned hard work is what should be rewarded. I worked hard. So did my husband. Niko’s parents were immigrants who discouraged going to college in lieu of working in the family business. But he worked hard, graduated valedictorian of his class and has put in enough hours into his career that his wife gets to stay at home with the kids (for now). So on Romney’s point of work, we agree. But what is often missed in the Republican talking point about “family values” is that the implication is that family, not the government, should be providing those opportunities. I read between the lines. “Family” sounds great in a speech, but the reality is that Romney’s plans would hurt young people in the same circumstances my husband and I had been in. We couldn’t rely on family for our opportunities. My mother once forged my signature to cash a check for $347.  I needed that Pell grant. In a Romney world, I might have an 11th grade education right now. And who would do all this important blog thinking?!

Bill Clinton was amazing tonight. He touched upon the importance of Pell grants and low interest federal education loans. He’s absolutely right – we must preserve opportunities for the middle class including education.

I’ll conclude by saying the other thing I learned from being poor is how to use a t-shirt as a pillow case. Try it! So comfy, so cheap.

*In England they call the head honcho of a college the Principal, but for my dear Americans I used “dean” to convey his authority. [Insert throaty British laugh.]

** Happens twice a year

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