N.M. high school dropout becomes education advocate
Halfway through my senior year of high school, I found I didn’t have enough credits to graduate on time. Between boredom and an hour-long bus ride each morning, I had missed so many classes that I’d earned Fs in U.S. Government and World History. I even had too many absences to pass P.E. — an irony for me, the lifelong athlete.
I was in the honors track and had a nearly perfect ACT score, yet I was painfully uninterested in academics. In fact, I thought Harper Lee’s classic novel was called “Tequila Mockingbird” until I read it in college.
I knew I couldn’t make up all those missed credits, and soon, I stopped attending classes altogether. This is how I ended up dropping out of high school in 1999.
In many ways, it was an unremarkable thing to do. Both of my parents had dropped out of school — my father, just like me, from Del Norte High School. When they learned I’d be following in their footsteps, they were of course disappointed. But they were also pragmatic, reminding me that it didn’t have to define my life.
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Married young, they both worked many jobs to support their five children, making ends meet with help from Section 8 housing and food stamps. Their own parents had also had children at a young age and never went to college. This was the era when families could get by on a single income, with a high school diploma or less.
Some call this the cycle of poverty or generational trauma. Whatever the label, it’s a very real phenomenon across New Mexico and a central question we as a state must answer. How do we disrupt these generational patterns and — most pressing to me — what roles do schools and education play in that intercession?
A version of this question runs in my head every day: What am I doing to break this cycle? It’s the question that brought me to education in the first place, and it’s the one that’s absorbed me for more than a decade.
‘A whole new world’ opens
After dropping out, I followed my parents’ path. I got my GED from Youth Development Inc. in Albuquerque. I worked two or three jobs at a time, paid my bills, lived hand-to-mouth. This is the razor-thin existence for many without a high school diploma or college degree. One week of being sick leads to missed rent, which leads to eviction … and so on. It’s a fraught way of life.
One day, after working a double shift at Seagull Street restaurant in Albuquerque, I knew I couldn’t live like that forever. I saw how low my ceiling was and felt suffocated. The shame of not having a high school diploma was a constant reminder of opportunities unavailable.
On a whim, I walked over to the Technical Vocational Institute (now Central New Mexico Community College), enrolled for about $200, and picked what I thought was the most college-sounding class I could find: “Philosophy: Logic and Critical Thinking.”
That semester, I was a mind on fire. The course was a revelation, and at the end of it my professor, Dr. John Havens DuFour, suggested I transfer to the University of New Mexico. As I sat across his desk, he walked me through the enrollment and financial aid applications.
His influence was subtle but invaluable. Someone with a collection of college degrees was telling me I should go to college — and helped show me the way there! I doubt he has any idea the influence he had on my life. But I’m forever grateful.
UNM opened a whole new world to me and I grabbed every opportunity I could. I joined a fraternity for a semester, which was not my cup of tea. I worked in the Economics lab. I triple-majored in English, Philosophy, and Economics. I graduated magna cum laude.
I found myself overlapping with my mother, who had also caught the college bug. Without realizing it, we were setting new patterns and creating a family legacy.
Setting new expectations
In the 20 years since leaving Del Norte High School, I’ve learned that dropout stories like mine are commonplace. Attending and finishing college are rarely part of the story.
And I’ve gained an appreciation for the complexities behind the reasons why. Far too many of our schools reinforce the historic and systemic biases we see throughout the country. They are places where students learn they can’t or aren’t supposed to reach high.
The best schools tell a different story; they inspire self-confidence instead of self-doubt. With so many New Mexico students coming from backgrounds similar to my own, we must redefine what we think is possible and never waver from those high expectations.
Seth Saavedra is a former middle school teacher with Teach For America in Bridgeport, Conn. He is back at UNM, studying Education Leadership. He advocates, researches, and writes about education at https://www.nmeducation.org