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Yesterday, I was looking through old photo albums with my daughters and couldn’t contain the nostalgia remembering the old days. There is something amazing, yet kind of powerful, about looking back through my old photos and remembering those key moments in the past that have impacted my life forever. You may think that one of those moments was graduating from college, but the defining moment was deciding to start it.

Although it has been 16 years since I started college, I still remember very well how I felt walking onto campus that first day as a college girl. I had just turned 17 years old and I felt a little intimidated about walking into that big adult world by myself. There was a new rigorous system to learn from that at times felt a little overwhelming to me.

From the early years, my parents taught me about the importance of higher education and how it opens doors. I understood clearly that if I wanted to have access to those opportunities, I needed to continue my education after high school. However, I didn’t understand how this decision was going to change lives for generations until that first day of school when I had a meeting with the president of the university and fellow freshmen students.

During that welcoming meeting, the president, a man in his early sixties, introduced us to the person whose post-university work impacted his life. Then we met people whose lives were forever changed because of the president’s post-university work. And then, these people showed pictures of the people whose lives had also been impacted by their post-university work. And finally, we were shown a video of generations of people that have been impacted because of one person’s work.

The presentation left me speechless and gave me a glimpse of all the goodness that we all can bring to our community through higher education. That experience marked me forever and inspired me to finish college, work harder, find opportunities to give back and teach my children to do the same.

As a Latina mom proudly raising my three kids in North Carolina, I am thankful that our families have great options in the North Carolina higher education system. Our community understands how North Carolina higher education works and why we must keep North Carolina higher education systems well-funded, affordable and accessible so that North Carolinians can get valuable higher education credentials.

Did you know that a North Carolina constitutional mandate requires the North Carolina General Assembly to provide all citizens with affordable higher education? We are one of three states to do so. Our constitution reads, “The General Assembly shall provide that the benefits of the University of North Carolina and other public institutions of higher education, as far as practicable, be extended to the people of the State free of expense.”

We must be diligent in our efforts because our systems are at risk. The great news is that on February 20th, North Carolina announced a new attainment rate goal. We can reach this goal if we all work together by making sure our community prioritizes education and people know about the available resources.

It is important for our fellow North Carolinians to attend North Carolina public universities and community colleges to get their credentials and degrees to meet their life goals. Our state has amazing postsecondary institutions to help citizens attain degrees and credentials. Most jobs will require some sort of postsecondary credential, not necessarily a 4-year degree, but training or certificates from a community college or university.

Let’s spread the word so more North Carolinians in rural counties know about these opportunities. It’s only through higher education that we can improve economic mobility and change lives. It’s only through us that we can ensure our higher education systems remain among the best in the nation.

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