My mother cried as I boarded my 7 a.m. flight. I had never seen her shed a tear. In my eyes, she was invincible. For 18 years, she raised my little brother and me without a man in our home.
“Don’t do alcohol, stay safe, and study hard,” she said.
With a final hug, I walked towards my terminal.
Growing up with a single parent is a common story in Clayton County, Georgia. The only difference is that at 18, I am leaving for college, and not being carried away in handcuffs or a body bag. In recent years, my community — once known as home to Hines Wards, Harry Douglas and Scarlett O’Hara — has been plagued by crime, high dropout rates, and low college bound student percentages.
To make matters worse, in 2008, our school system was stripped of its accreditation due to corruption within our Board of Education: abuse of power, embezzlement and micromanaging, just to name a few. Those who could afford to leave, left. Within months, our student enrollment dropped from 52,000 to 48,000. The rest of us stayed and faced our mess. I lost a scholarship offer, but 2,400 seniors graduated with empty diplomas. Living through the experience of having my high school credits go from accredited to non-accredited was like a practicing lawyer going through disbarment. My years of hard work vanished before my eyes. Dropouts continued, crimes heightened, and stories of colleges not accepting Clayton County students ran rampant. I knew the problem.
The types of families who chose to stay after 2008 were those who could not afford to move, and consequently, could not to send their sons or daughters to programs like Duke TIP for the summer, C2 for tutoring in difficult subjects, or Elite for help with the SAT. For most of these students, learning occurs only from August to May and ends each day when the 3:15 bell rings. Instead of studying in the evenings, many of these same students come home to family responsibilities, night jobs, or the “night life.”
For 18 years I grew up in this environment. I did not have the best surroundings, privileges, or opportunities. But still, I wouldn’t change a thing about my experience. From preschool to 12th grade, I met amazing individuals who pushed me to rise above my circumstances: elementary teachers who stayed until 8 p.m. to help me with English, goal-driven students who challenged me to earn my grades, and community leaders who offered me internships at a local real estate firm and the Capitol. My mother never asked me to take a job or babysit my little brother. Instead, she wanted me to go to school, do extracurricular activities, come home, and study.
I know many families cannot offer the same luxuries my mother presented me. But I also know my community can solve its problems. When SACS (Southern Association of Colleges and Schools) stripped our public school system of its accreditation, my community stood up. We petitioned and ousted our board members, reformed our diminishing parent-teacher relations, and pushed for higher accountability from our local governments. Last March, after 2 1/2 years of fighting and two months before my graduation, our school system had our full accreditation returned and our probation status lifted by SACS. 2,000 seniors, including myself, were able to graduate knowing how hard we fought. But the fight is not over.
I know improving my community is possible, after seeing it come together the last two years. I want to keep our momentum going strong. At Yale, I plan to study urban development and political structures. Some time after graduation, I hope I will be able to return to Clayton County to help.
By exploring this city and the culture at Yale and New Haven, I hope to gain insight into how I can help change my community, from one of gangs, guns, and drugs into a place where cultural centers, study hubs, and continued education buildings aren’t only imagined.
And I want to see more mothers and fathers crying at the terminal as their son or daughter leaves for college.
Davis Nguyen is a freshman in Berkeley College.