Is Education a Right or a Privilege?

Those of us who grew up in a rural North Carolina town after the decline of local furniture and textile industries, often had a very different sense of the value of a university education than did our counterparts from more prosperous parts of the state like Raleigh, Chapel Hill or the affluent parts of Durham near Duke University’s campus.  Most of the families in my hometown of Goldsboro saw the purpose of a college education purely as a form of advanced vocational training.  Its value was measured by the starting salary of its recent graduates.

Goldsboro is a small tobacco-farming town an hour and a half southeast of Durham.  The two main attractions of the town are the Seymour Johnson Air Force Base and Wilber’s BBQ.  When I was nine, my family relocated from a small town in Northern California to Goldsboro, NC.  It took me awhile to acclimate to this depressed southern town, but it helped shape my thoughts and beliefs around the value of education in today’s world.

Back in California, I’d attended San Miguel Elementary School which was mediocre at best.  I neither owned nor borrowed any textbooks for the entirety of my elementary school career.  Instead, we were given stacks of photocopied pages that our teachers distributed on a daily basis.  When I started fifth grade, the school decided to combine my class with a fourth grade class and I remember crying in my mother’s arms, thinking I’d been held back. In fact, they had decided to reduce the size of the fifth grade class that year by moving some of us back in with the fourth graders as a space-saving measure.  This only increased my family’s desire to leave California in search of greener educational pastures for me and my younger brother.

I have come to see it as an elite privilege to assume that a college degree is an essential part of one’s basic education; to view it as anything other than targeted vocational training.

I attended Spring Creek School in Goldsboro from sixth through tenth grade.  The school was located at the crossroads of an intersection in Seven Springs, a town twenty minutes outside of
Goldsboro in the middle of nowhere, with a population of not quite 100 people.  I started playing the clarinet very seriously when I entered sixth grade.  I joined the band and started competing in both the marching band and all-county / all-district bands.  Wanting to more seriously pursue my musical training, I ask my school guidance counselor to help me apply to the two residential high schools in North Carolina: North Carolina School of the Arts (NCSA) in Winston-Salem and North Carolina School of Science and Math (NCSSM) in the city of Durham.

Most students at Spring Creek High School (SCHS) weren’t even thinking of applying to get into other high schools, let alone of leaving Goldsboro.  Wayne Community College was the usual avenue to take post-senior year of high school.  Those with higher career aspirations drove 45 minutes out to Greenville, NC, to attend Eastern Carolina University (ECU).  Only a very few gifted or otherwise privileged students applied to study at one of the more prestigious universities in the Research Triangle area: NC State University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, or, even more rarely, Duke University.  Anyone from Goldsboro who attended any of these three schools were held in high status by their home community.

When I left Goldsboro in my junior year of high school to attend NCSA where I had recently been accepted, my three closest SCHS friends opted instead to follow paths much more typical of our home community.  Two of them, who had aspirations to join the US Army, ended up working at the nearby Bojangles and Butterball deli-meat plant after completing high school.  My third SCHS friend, Amy, was an incredible writer and had achieved very high scores on the practice AP English and PSAT tests.  She was, without a doubt, intellectually gifted, and read and analyzed astounding literature as a hobby.  Amy’s dream was to study English at UNC in Chapel Hill.

I am not sure why I chose a different path from most of my high school friends in Goldsboro.  Neither my father nor my stepfather attended college.  My mother and her brother, however, both graduated from Cornell University and my uncle went on to get a graduate degree at Stanford.  My entire family was always supportive of my musical and educational aspirations and dreams.  They drove me to all of my music auditions, helped me go through all of my applications, guided me through all of my decisions and supported me when I felt like I was going to crack underneath all of the pressure.  When I successfully applied to Duke University, they encouraged me to continue pursing my musical studies and instilled in me a belief that a college degree from a prestigious university was the key to my professional success.

During winter break of my freshman year at Duke, I paid Amy an overdue visit.  We talked about our lives, and she told me she had been accepted at ECU and was pursuing a degree in criminal justice.  Her selected path was to attend a college close to home.  Her priority was to stay close to her hometown and near her high school friends and family.

I told her how I had travelled to Colombia, South America through DukeEngage and that I was taking all sorts of music theory, theater, and writing courses at Duke.  I had moved away from my family and made new friends at college.  Clearly, our college decisions would affect the entirety of our lives.  We had chosen to pursue different paths.  I wonder, however, whether Amy ever really had a choice about where to go to school and what to study like I did.  We both came from middle class families with educated parents.  We were both high achievers in school.  We attended all of the same classes for gifted students.  What, then, led us to take such different paths after high school?

Practicality.  What was comfortable to me meant an entirely different thing to Amy.  If she strayed too far from Goldsboro, she would be straying from familial support and accessibility to vocational networks.  My familial support was willing to span county lines in order to help me flourish in my musical passions.  My career path was much more open-ended and nuanced, which meant I would need access to credible universities and musical programs.  Amy and I are bright young women who ventured down different life paths, although both nurtured in the same Southern community.  Unlike many Goldsboro folks, we had the privilege of tailoring an education to our lives.  So who can say Amy ‘settled’ for less by staying near Goldsboro?  Who can say that I made the right choice by leaving?  Choosing to attend Duke in Durham no doubt increased the financial stress for me and my family than we would have faced if I had opted to stay near to home.

In my home community, a college education was considered a privilege, not a right.  None of us took it for granted that we would continue on with our schooling after high school.  This is why I believe that each of us needs to determine for ourselves the value of a college education.  Yet so many of my friends from Duke seem to believe that attending an elite school is the only path to happiness and success in life.  Where I come from, however, most of us grew up believing that attending a college or university only made sense if 1) their family could afford it and 2) if it provided us with the necessary training or skills to pursue our professional dreams.  I am happy to report that Amy and I both succeeded in finding our way to full-time careers in relative happiness.