NH Register Publishes Dr. Mayo Op-ed on NH Promise

FORUM: A college degree saved my life
 

Published: Sunday, May 29, 2011
 
Courtesy of the New Haven Register 
 
By Reginald Mayo

 
College didn’t just change my life. It saved my life.
 

That is why New Haven Promise — which will eventually offer eligible city residents free tuition at in-state public schools — is so important to me.
 
New Haven Promise, generously funded by Yale University, Yale-New Haven Hospital, The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven and others, is just that, a promise. New Haven students who graduate with at least a B average, stay out of trouble, regularly attend school and do community service can qualify for scholarships to in-state public colleges or universities and to private in-state schools.
 

Mayor John DeStefano Jr., who helped envision and create New Haven Promise, likes to say that college is the best wealth creation and crime reduction strategy.
 

I am living proof of that.
 

I was born in 1944 in Richmond, Va., and grew up in a public housing project. My mother raised my older brother and sister and me on public assistance.
 

Even for the projects, we were poor. We had no car, no TV, not even a telephone.
 
But thanks to my mother, we always had what we needed. She loved us and was an excellent parent.
 

Seeing my mom struggle made me want more. Starting about fifth grade, I would climb a hill behind the housing project and look down into the neighborhood below where doctors and lawyers lived. They had single family homes and big cars parked out front. They were black like me, but they were different. I wanted to be different. I decided to work a little harder in school and to push myself so I could live in a neighborhood like that.
 

But around the time I turned 12, I began hanging out with the wrong crowd. I knew I was in trouble. So I started going to summer school to try to get ahead. I felt like I was in a race between finishing high school and going to jail.
 
 

One day when I was 13, I was gambling outside with my friends, a violation of the housing project rules. The manager caught me red-handed and kicked us out of the complex. I never saw my mother cry so hard. I decided right then that I would make it up to her someday.
 

We found a two-family house in a decent neighborhood for higher rent, so my mom got a job.
 
 
The people in my new neighborhood were different. I made new friends, and I stopped doing things I shouldn’t.
 

I worked so hard at school that I graduated two years early, at 16. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I knew I wanted to help my mother financially. I decided to join the Marines so I could send her money.
 
 
But my high school guidance counselor, Mrs. Pleasant, had other ideas. She told me not to go into the service. “You should be thinking about college, college, college,” she said.
 

I filled out college applications, but I still wanted to be a Marine. Then, I found out I couldn’t join until I turned 17, and even then my mom would have to give permission. She refused. “Stay here,” she said.
 

I stayed and went to Virginia Union University in Richmond, taking the bus to campus. I didn’t have a penny. I took out a loan, and my mom got me a job as a hospital orderly. I worked there and at a drug store and rode the bus every day to classes.
 
 
It was worth it. When I graduated, I had more options than I knew what to do with. I thought about becoming a lawyer — I was accepted to law school — or a doctor, but neither was for me.
 

I came to Connecticut where I had relatives and got a job at Pratt & Whitney testing jet engine parts. It paid well, but it wasn’t for me. While I thought about starting a business, I was a substitute teacher in Waterbury and fell in love with teaching.
 
 
In 1967, I took summer courses to get certified, and got a job teaching science at Troup School in New Haven. I’ve been here ever since. I received my master’s degree from Southern Connecticut State University, two doctorates, and in 1991 became superintendent of schools.
 
 
As soon as I got my first job as an administrator, I started sending my mom money. Was she ever proud.
 

College not only saved me, it allowed me to do what I truly love: educate kids.
 

My mother died about a year and a half ago at 85. I’m so happy that I could help her and so thankful for how well she raised me. It was because of her and Mrs. Pleasant that I went to college. I owe them and college everything.
 
 
I want the same for New Haven students. College made my dreams come true. New Haven Promise can do the same for a generation of New Haven’s youth.