A Reflection on Father’s Day – the Generational Gifts of Education

It is Father’s Day and I have a few minutes alone to think. As I do quite commonly, I am reflecting on the advantages I have had in life. Everything I am and everything I have is due to education.

My grandparents were born around 1898, as the extremely poor island of Puerto Rico changed hands from Spain to the U.S. Like the great majority of their contemporaries they were from families of very limited means. What they did have was large families (my father had eleven siblings) and an unrelenting commitment to educate themselves and their children. For example, my maternal grandfather joined the U.S. Army as a teenager and used his military career to formally educate himself. Of the 12 children in my father’s family, all of the brothers, himself included, and some of the sisters, went to college. So did my mother and her brother, who became an MD.

As was typical of the time, my mother was a housewife. The first 20 years of my father’s professional career as an engineer was as a public servant, a job he adored and missed even after he reluctantly went to private practice and achieved financial success. My sister and I never had the option not to go to college, it simply was the non-negotiable expectation.

I went to a private Jesuit high school, at a cost that was a stretch to my public servant father, requiring sacrifices. When I graduated from high school and  MIT offered admission, I was not asked whether I was interested, and there was never a question that I was going. As is typical of teenagers, it never occurred to me how my father was going to afford sending me to Massachusetts. By then we were solidly middle class in Puerto Rico, but my annual expenses at MIT amounted to at least a third of my father’s gross income. I did not have financial aid. I was oblivious. It was close to 30 years later, when I managed my ailing parent’s finances, that I discovered how deeply they went in debt, mortgaging their future to make my education possible. There is now little doubt in my mind that a huge contributing factor in my father’s decision to leave his beloved public servant job was the need to make more money to pay for my education.

If I learned anything from my parents, it is their single-minded belief that education is the path to liberation for humans. It is the key to wellbeing, freedom, and self-confidence. There is no question that I am better off than my parents because the education they made possible. From the day my kids were born, my wife, Pat, and I knew that we would do whatever it would take to offer them all the education they wanted. It was our burden, not theirs. With MIT, Princeton, Northwestern and Stanford behind them and us, I can say that the effort was worth every penny. Although it was not easy, we offered them what I had received, the best education available without debt or worry on their part.

It is the education that our parents made possible that allowed Pat and me to be in a position to do the same for our children. It is a lesson that I know they have learned well. Many times, I hear the argument that actions like ours spoil children. It certainly was not true in Pat’s and my case and it certainly not the case in our children. It is also depressingly common to hear that education is “not necessary,” and that higher education is overrated. Generally, these arguments are founded on the false narrative that everybody can be a Bill Gates or Steve Jobs. Those are extraordinary exceptions even in the lofty club of the very rich. For the majority of all, attaining an education, be it a traditional four-year or technical education, is the ticket that allows us to compete in this world.

Although I had the fortune to benefit from a college education and provide the same to my children without depending on traditional financial aid, I recognize that even with the best of intentions and the greatest of effort, that is still simply not possible for many. My dream is that Georgia Tech will be home to all meritorious individuals and families that desire excellent education, independent of their ability to pay. For that, we need family commitments, a culture of learning, and financial resources to provide to those in real need.

With that in mind, we just started Initiative 2020: Student Support, to raise $150 million over three years to help us close some of the current gap in financial aid. I urge every reader to first commit to education at all cost and second to consider helping us, or others with similar objectives, to provide for those that want to secure their children’s future through education.

Rafael L. Bras

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