Last week I spoke to about 20 fourth- and fifth-grade students at an elementary school in Bountiful. I was doing it at the request of my neighbor and didn’t expect anything particularly interesting or profound to occur — but I was wrong.
I had given several speeches during the week, some to quite high-profile audiences in Utah. Yet, my visit to this elementary school provided some moments that have changed me forever.
The topic was the importance of getting a college education and being civically active. The students were very engaged in the discussion, and at one point I began talking about why it was so important for both men and women to serve in our state Legislature. I spoke about the types of issues that women tend to support — even more than men — within legislatures around the country.
During this discussion I mentioned the word “poverty,” and a boy from the back of the room asked what the word poverty meant. As I started to explain, an 11–year-old girl in the front row raised her hand as high as it would go with excitement and conviction. It was clear she wanted to share.
After I called on her to speak, she said this: “My grandparents in Mexico were raised in poverty their whole lives. And both of my parents were raised in poverty. After they got married, they decided their kids needed more opportunities, so they came to the United States. Now they have education and good jobs. They have taught me all of my life that everything can change in one generation — with education.”
This brilliant young girl raised her hand repeatedly and shared her well-articulated thoughts multiple times. At the end of my presentation, I pulled out a Utah Women & Leadership Project brochure — some have called it my women’s education and leadership proselytizing pamphlet — and asked if any students wanted to take one for their parents. All the kids were heading out for recess and didn’t respond, except for this one girl. She stood up quietly and held out both hands. As I gave her the brochure, she immediately pulled it into her chest, placed it over her heart, and said in an earnest whisper, “Thank you.”
As I exited the building, I was following a small-framed Hispanic man in his late 50s or early 60s, who suddenly turned around and asked me, “Were you volunteering in this school today?” I told him what I was presenting to students about the importance of college and leadership. He then smiled from ear to ear and put his right hand over his heart and said, “I love those topics so much!” This surprised me because I had assumed he was the janitor. (Yes, I continue to challenge my own unconscious biases.) Although I was in a hurry, he kept talking so I stopped and engaged.
Then he said, “I immigrated here from Guatemala many years ago. My grandparents were raised and lived in poverty their whole lives, and my parents lived in poverty their whole lives. But when my wife and I were first married, we decided we needed to immigrate to the U.S. so we could find more opportunities for our future children. Coming to Utah changed our lives. I got my wife through a college education and two of my children now have Ph.D.s.”
Then he momentarily paused, while a few tears welled up in his eyes, and said, “With education, everything can change in one generation.”
It wasn’t until I started driving down the road that the profundity of what had just happened began to sink in. Lives were changed because of the power of what higher education did for individuals, families and generations. These experiences reminded me, yet again, why expanding educational access and opportunity to all Utah residents is so critical.
Education can transform individual lives and those of our posterity — in a single generation.
Susan R. Madsen, Ed.D., is the inaugural Karen Haight Huntsman Endowed Professor of Leadership & Director, Utah Women & Leadership Project, Utah State University.