Paying it Forward With Tomorrow’s Students of Color

By Remberto Del Real

When I was a kid, I would spend many weekends tagging along as my father visited the clients of his HVAC business, providing heating, ventilation and air conditioning services throughout Chicago. That meant working in freezing conditions (if the heat was out) or alternatively boiling conditions (if the AC was out) helping my father with whatever he needed.

As much as I respected, and still respect, my father for operating his own business, I quickly learned that it wasn’t what I wanted to do with my life. The problem was, I didn’t understand what my options were, much less how to get there.

No one in my family had gone to college. My mom and dad were first-generation immigrants from Mexico. For them, work meant literally getting your hands dirty. Anything else wasn’t really “work.” There simply was no expectation, let alone appreciation, of going to college or pursuing a career outside of the trades.

So, it was up to me to figure it out. What career options were available to me? How do I apply for college? What college would be a good choice? How would I pay for it?

Needless to say, it was daunting for an introverted kid from in the south side of Chicago.

Eventually, I figured it all out, but it could have been so much easier, so much less intimidating, if only I had someone to show me the way.

That is why I’m writing today. To raise my hand to say I’m here and ready to help those who are in the same situation I was once in. And to encourage my peers to do the same, particularly among communities of color.

Of course, it takes more than just having the desire to help.

When I was in high school, I was tremendously shy. I would have never taken the initiative to ask for guidance. And I now appreciate that it’s sometimes on us to extend a guiding hand. Below are my suggestions of what we can do to make that happen.

Seek out opportunities to pay it forward

Good will isn’t good enough. We have to make the first move. We must seek out opportunities to connect with young people, especially in minority communities, who have the desire to make something out of their lives but have no idea where to start.

Perhaps your workplace has a community mentoring program you can join. If not, connect with your HR department to suggest one. Contact the high school you attended and offer to speak to a class about your path after graduating. Explicitly offer yourself up as a mentor to those young people.

There are countless other opportunities if you only look for them. Places of worship. Community centers. Youth sports leagues.

The point is, take the initiative to make yourself available. Not only to the young people who are seeking guidance, but to their parents as well. They are likely just as eager as their children to have them aspire for (and achieve) greatness, but don’t have the experiences to guide them.

For example, I serve on the board of directors for 3Arts, which advocates for Chicago’s women artists, artists of color and artists with disabilities. These are some amazingly talented and creative artists who simply need a helping hand to bring their art to the full embodiment of what it can be.

At DeVry University, where nearly 50 percent of our students are people of color, we are very intentional about reaching out to our students on an ongoing basis to ensure they are receiving the help they need. That one-to-one support can uncover unknown barriers, which we can then help resolve. Our message to our students? We are with you every step of the way.

It’s all about making the effort to connect. One of my favorite sayings which is often attributed to hockey Hall of Famer Wayne Gretzykey is, “You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.” Take the shot.

Show them what the future can look like

For all their enthusiasm and passion to change the world and make the most of their lives, young people, particularly young people of color, often have no idea what that future life can look like. How would they if no one in their families has gone to college or pursued a professional career? That’s where we can help. We can make it real.

Once you’ve connected with a young person hungry for your guidance, take the time to expose them to your world. Let them job shadow you. Introduce them to the executives where you work. Organize a tour of a college in your area. Seek out every opportunity you can to paint a picture of what the future can look like. In short, get them excited about what can be.

It’s said that education is the great equalizer. I absolutely believe that. The more we can make the idea of earning a degree real and achievable for young people who may have been told otherwise, the more those young people will reach for the stars. I never would have had the career (or life) I’ve had without the education I received.

If you, or someone you know, could use the advice of a shy kid of immigrant parents who has gone through the journey of earning a degree and building a successful career, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me. Together, let’s continue the dialogue about how we can pay it forward.

Remberto Del Real is chief marketing officer of DeVry University. He and Culpwrit met through mutual friends early in his career, which has included senior marketing positions at GE, JPMorgan Chase and BMO Harris Bank. This post also appears on Remberto’s LinkedIn page.

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