Aydin Akyol

“College is not for everyone.” I’ve heard these words often and everywhere: in the business community, among elected officials and, perhaps most disturbingly, among educators. They get my blood pumping every time.

It’s not that going to college is the sole route to a good life. Plenty of people thrive without college. But lots of others don’t — including those who would benefit the most from a post-secondary education. Students born in the lowest income quintile who don’t earn four-year degrees are almost five times as likely to remain in that bottom quintile as those who do. And yet, these are the students so often dismissed or discouraged — sometimes implicitly, sometimes explicitly and always with major costs to their ability to overcome obstacles.

My educational journey started more than 60 years ago, when my grandfather came to the United States from Latin America to pursue a graduate education in economics at Yale. All these decades later, I know that his path paved mine. When high school graduation rolled around, I followed in my grandfather’s footsteps and went to Yale myself. I did well, graduated and headed off to a job at one of the nation’s top law firms.

But after reflecting on the inequities that pervade this country and doing pro bono work for underserved individuals, I knew I needed a job where I could make a difference for our nation’s most vulnerable populations. So I left the law firm, passed up on an opportunity to pursue a Ph.D. at Yale, and joined Teach For America.

That decision changed my life. For five years, I taught bilingual fifth graders at a Houston school that served predominantly low-income Latino youth. As I watched brilliant, motivated kids struggle to access the resources they needed to prepare for, apply to and attend college, I launched an after-school and summer program called EMERGE to help high-potential students from underserved backgrounds attend the nation’s top colleges.

Then, one spring morning on the way to work, my phone rang. I looked at the caller ID and took a deep breath. It was one of my EMERGE students, who at 15 became the sole breadwinner for his family after an accident left his father unable to work. This student desperately wanted to go to college so he could get a better job and more easily support his family — and he had the grades to do it — but financial difficulties were clouding his prospects. I answered the call hesitantly, not knowing if I wanted to know the news on the other end.

“Mr. Cruz,” he said. “I got in! Scholarship at Yale. Full scholarship.”

I told him I was proud of him and hung up quickly, choking back tears. And though I’ve tried to express it since, I doubt he’ll ever understand just how much he inspires me every day — his questionable decision to ultimately attend Harvard not withstanding.

The other handful of graduating students in the first EMERGE cohort experienced similar success. They were the first in their school’s history to attend a top-tier college. All received full scholarships and all were the first in their families to pursue a post-secondary education. A sense of optimism spread within the schools and among the community.

Recognizing that there are countless more underserved students who have the potential to experience similar success, the superintendent of the Houston Independent School District, Terry Grier, promoted me to assistant superintendent and provided the resources to scale the initiative across the city. Since then, EMERGE has served over 1,000 students and has defied the mantra that college is not for all. We’ve proven that students of all ethnicities who face homelessness, poverty and other challenges can successfully attend MIT, Tufts, Pitzer, Yale, Harvard, Oberlin, Smith, Rice, Stanford — you name it.  For the past two years, we’ve led a summer EMERGE Program at Yale. We took kids who had never left Houston and showed them that, yes, college is for them and yes, they do belong. With every acceptance letter, that truth takes a deeper hold.

So the next time someone conjectures about who college is or isn’t for, take a moment to think about what college meant for you, the role it played in your own story. We are students and alumni of a school that has opened door after door to our futures and our dreams. It’s our responsibility and privilege to reach back and hold those doors open as the next generation walks through.

Rick Cruz is a 2007 graduate of Timothy Dwight College. Contact him at rcruz8@houstonisd.org.