By Barbra Kim - 08/03/10 10:12 PM EDT
The movers and shakers of today credit their pursuit of higher education for their career success and developing their sense of selves.
It is easy to forget not all members of Congress followed the yellow brick road to the Capitol. Many remember the challenges of working full-time, balancing a family and working on a post-secondary degree.
“During that time, I had two small children, and I was on public assistance and had just gotten out of a terrible situation as a formerly battered woman. I was determined to turn my life around, make something out of my life, and raise my children by getting a job. Education was the vehicle to success,” said Lee, who earned a master’s in social work from the University of California-Berkeley.
Education might have been the vehicle, but it was Lee who was the driver. As a result of one of her fieldwork assignments while at Berkeley, she began her own community mental health center called Change Incorporated and sought out funding and grants to keep it running.
A role model for young women, and especially women of color, Lee said she knew inherently that “education is the path that will lead you out of personal challenges.”
That same observation led Rep. Brett Guthrie (R-Ky.) to his current role as the senior Republican on the Higher Education, Lifelong Learning and Competitiveness Subcommittee.
Guthrie credits President Reagan and his father for helping bring direction to his life. The commander-in-chief’s call to service at the time motivated him to apply successfully to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Another of life’s lessons awaited him when his father lost his job at the Ford Motor Company.
Undeterred, his father saw the setback as an opportunity to set out on his own and start his own company, now called Trace Die Cast, Inc. Guthrie was inspired.
With a degree in economics in his pocket and West Point in his rearview mirror, Guthrie headed to Yale to obtain a master’s degree in public and private management.
This would prove helpful down the road when he returned home to help run the family business. But he didn’t want to stop there.
“That’s why I wanted to work in government,” Guthrie said. “I didn’t want to see people with the same look in the faces of the fathers of my friends who didn’t know what to do.”
Other lawmakers like Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-Pa.) jumped straight into the political arena.
He was just 24 years old in 1982 and the youngest representative elected to serve in the Pennsylvania State House. But education was not far from his mind. Once in office, he attended a summer program for legislators at Harvard University, and realized he needed a post-secondary degree. Fattah chose to attend the University of Pennsylvania while also serving in the House and graduated in 1986 with a master’s degree in governmental administration.
“Sometimes if you want to operate on a larger platform, you need a stronger foundation,” said Fattah, the first to get a graduate degree in his family. “I went to graduate school because I needed that stronger foundation.”
Fattah created the GEARUP program, a grant initiative to increase the number of low-income students who are prepared to enter and succeed in post-secondary education.
“My GEARUP program has helped 12 million young people and is the largest college knowledge program,” Fattah said. “There is no possibility that I would have been able to craft that without my graduate school experience. I would have been much less effective.”
His colleagues Rep. Tim Bishop (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) agree on the importance of education. Bishop, the former Provost of Southampton College says, “The college experience, exposure to new ideas and different kinds of people who think differently than you do are enormously valuable and instructive.”
Schiff, a graduate of Stanford University and Harvard Law School makes this point.
“We should compete on where America has always competed — ingenuity, inventiveness and productivity. If you want to compete there and win, you need a higher education.”
Members of Congress know rising college costs have made high school students wary of seeking a higher education. As a result, Fattah and other lawmakers have invested considerable time and effort to make it more affordable.
Fattah said the critical skill shortage in America shows these students are needed. “More than half of the federal workforce will retire in 10 years,” he said. “We need to have a national confrontation to not look at an undergraduate degree as the ceiling.”