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A woman passes the Howard R. Hughes College of Engineering at UNLV on Thursday, Feb. 02, 2017. Photo by Photoprises LLC.

By Erica Mosca

I’ve had the privilege to feel guilty this quarantine season. Because of my college degree and two masters degrees, I can work from home, continue to have health insurance, and toilet paper and hand sanitizer aren’t that hard to come by. In fact, almost everyone I know still has a job, is up to date on bill payments and can safely order groceries from Amazon. 

I am conscious enough to know this is the result of systemic inequity and an aspect of class warfare, however, so many continue to miss what’s right in front of them. As a Filipina, I identify as BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) and grew up experiencing low-income housing and public assistance. I intimately understand my privilege during this quarantine season: privilege that singularly comes from my college degree. 

To be clear, even though I am married to an active duty enlisted airman, I do not believe in the American dream. The idea that all you have to do is work hard and you’ll achieve continues to be disproven by frontline hourly workers who continue to work hard to make sure Las Vegas functions, but do so at the peril of their own family’s health — and at such a wage that they would earn more on unemployment.

I acknowledge systemic oppression and structural racism that ensures those who were born poor or with more melanin start the race further behind. However, what I experienced in my own life and have dedicated my career to empowering is equitable opportunity through educational attainment. Education remains the fastest avenue to end generational poverty in our country, yet nationally less than 10 percent of low-income students ever graduate from college. When the fastest route to gain ground and reach the finish line is blocked for 90 percent of runners, we can’t say the race was fair. 

Because I knew how lucky I was to get through the education pipeline, at the age of 22 I became a Clark County School District Teach For America 5th grade teacher in East Las Vegas. The theme of my classroom was “Leaders in Training.” Students wore “Leader” name tags and earned “Leader Bucks” and sat in college-named groups. To get students’ attention I would say: “College Class” and they would reply “2020.”

In 2008, how could we have predicted that the college class of 2020 would have no gowns to wear or hats to throw? That the parents who slaved away to ensure their children could end generational poverty through a college degree would have no crowd cheers to hear or family pictures to take?

In 2012, I made “Leaders in Training” a non-profit organization with my own savings to ensure more students like me could reach the finish line. All those 2008 5th graders and their friends were invited to join as members as they started the 9th grade. Four of those students — David Becerra, Jorge Martinez, Natalie Pen and Nestor Sanchez — should be walking across the UNR and UNLV graduation stages on Friday and Saturday. Instead, they will have small private celebrations with their families in their homes. 

And though we acknowledge and understand this is the right thing to do, we must also acknowledge and understand the momentous and tectonic plate shifting event happening for all first-generation college graduates who are part of the class of 2020. With every systemic obstacle in the way of them and their families from reaching this moment, they got through to the other side of privilege.

Many continue to say college is not for everyone. However, the opportunity to gain a college degree if one chooses must be an option for all. We are not sure what the future will hold for these four new job seekers, but if you look around at who is thriving instead of just surviving during this quarantine, our society’s inequitable odds are now in their favor. 

Erica Mosca is the founder & executive director of Leaders in Training (LIT). LIT empowers first-generation college graduates to become the next-generation of diverse leaders who change the world.

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