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Public Education Paved the Way

As a first-generation college student, who didn’t understand the label at first, I soon realized that often it meant that I had to navigate through unique hurdles that sometimes caused frustration and, in the worst of times, almost drove me to give up. But my dream of pursuing a career in policy work pushed me forward, and I spent my time searching for financial resources and professional development opportunities all through college, to make up for the institutional knowledge that I lacked about the policy career world. Attending a public higher education institution that was affordable, provided various pathways to achieve my goals and equipped me with tools to take action despite the challenges I faced.

The first lesson I learned when I began my college career was that finances are a necessary and critical component to all of my decisions. I am the daughter of Mexican and Ecuadorian immigrants whose dreams and ambitions only consisted of being financially stable. My parents viewed education as a necessary step for us to achieve more than what they had, but as I began researching and applying to colleges the price tag discouraged me and narrowed my choices. Luckily, I was accepted into a regional school where the cost was manageable for me and my family. I decided to attend California State University – Fullerton based on its affordability. But beyond the surety provided to me by the price tag, I believe this institution allowed me to grow as a person and member within my community. I wanted a life dedicated to public service after the university president nominated me to become a Panetta Scholar. The program allows students to experience Washington D.C. by interning in the House of Representatives, but more importantly the institute stressed the value of compromise and giving back. Due to this experience and more on campus, I graduated a proud first-generation Latina dedicated to helping future generations of people access resources necessary to accomplish their goals, regardless of who they are or where they come from.

Now that I have graduated, I am interested in learning more about the issues facing Millennials in the workforce, since being unemployed and economically insecure has always been my fear. I always have the underlying anxiety that, if I can not achieve some financial security then the investment and sacrifice my parents made to fund my education was worthless. Thus, I push myself to attain as many opportunities as I can in order to prove to them and myself that pursuing a college degree was worth the investment, and to get on track toward the career I’ve always dreamed of. This mentality was tested during my sophomore year, when my father lost his job. I was pushed to my limit to maintain a student government position while living in my car and my best friend’s dorm room for a semester. I believed at the time that this was just what I had to do in order to attain my goals, yet my story is one that speaks to the deeper racial inequities present in higher education. Research shows that for Hispanic families college costs make up 53 percent of their incomes, while white families it is 44 percent. Additionally, even after college, there is evidence of an employment gap among people of color. In 1993, black graduates with a bachelor’s degree  were 90 percent likely to be employed four years after graduation, compared to white graduates with 89 percent. However, we’ve seen a disturbing trend, as black graduates are having more difficulty finding jobs than their white peers. Black graduates of 2008 were only 72 percent likely to be employed, while the rate for white graduates was 83 percent. These studies show that my fear of being financially insecure is affirmed and prevalent among my generation, particularly people of color.

I am working to address a part of this economic issue by researching the effects of the contingent workforce – people who are self-employed and don’t employ others – especially since Millennials make up the majority of on-demand workers. Young people’s financial security is threatened since contingent workers do not receive benefits like health insurance, retirement plans, worker’s compensation, paid leave, and unemployment insurance. I am intrigued by this topic and want to help secure my generation’s financial health and thus I am exploring ways we can improve benefits for contingent workers, and by extension the millennial generation, through policy changes.

In both my professional and educational experiences, I quickly learned that my personal background was common among underrepresented groups. First-generation college students often come from low-income family backgrounds and are more likely to be of a racial or ethnic minority. Thankfully, while at California State University, Fullerton, a Hispanic Serving Institution, I met professionals and students dedicated to helping me clear a path to achieve my passion of impacting public policy. I am now living and working in D.C. obtaining skills that will propel me forward to help others on a national level. My higher education journey introduced me to the obstacles facing people of color in our country, but through my new journey at YI, I know that we need to work on these issues as a country. I am optimistic about my generation and believe we can piece together the complexities that tear our world apart, we just need the resources and training to get there, so don’t stop paving your way.

Amanda Isabel Martinez graduated with a Political Science degree at California State University, Fullerton. She is a Policy Research Scholar for Young Invincibles’ in the Washington D.C. office this summer. She will be pursuing her Masters in Public Policy at American University in the fall of 2017.

Learn more about the YI Scholars program