Pell's poster child

In the past few weeks, members of Congress have vigorously debated funding of the federal Pell Grant program. What's at stake is obvious: the opportunity for poor and lower-middle-class students to attend college.

But what's missing in the debate is typical of Washington politics - the voice of the people affected most by the decisions being made.

That explains why I went to Washington, D.C., last month to speak at an awards assembly honoring retired Sen. Claiborne Pell (D) of Rhode Island.

I had never met Mr. Pell before, and, up until two weeks prior to my talk, I'd never heard his full name.

But lately I've come to realize that this quirky blue-blooded senator has changed my life - maybe even saved it. And I've come to believe that it is critical to stand up as the poster child for the formerly poor - and to be proud of it.

I am not a college president, unlike most of the people who came to hear me speak at the annual meeting of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.

Nor am I a senator, unlike the distinguished gentleman who followed me on the program, Sen. James Jeffords (R) of Vermont, who spoke about Pell's contributions to education, arts, and foreign relations.

Unlike just about everyone else in the room, I am not all that important, and I am definitely not rich. I teach college writing classes part-time between shuffling my kids to various pre-school activities in my Volvo station wagon (odometer reading: 122,000 miles). My husband drives a 1986 Mustang with a leaky convertible roof to the inner-city school where he teaches.

Pell has chauffeurs and mansions and foundations. And up in Newport, R.I., you can't swing a tennis racket without running into something or other named in honor of Claiborne Pell.

Nonetheless, there I stood in my borrowed J. Peterman suit, an expert on all things Pell. When a friend of mine, a writer who is in her 80s, heard I was giving a speech about having been a Pell grant recipient, she said this: "You always hear about Fulbrights, but nobody ever says how much they appreciated their Pell grants."

That was my thought exactly.

They say the GI Bill changed America; that thousands of people became the first in their families to go to college, turning education from an elites-only business to a more democratic enterprise.

In 1972, Pell shepherded into law a grant that opened the doors of the Ivory Tower much wider, giving access to more women and minorities. In the past 26 years, 30 million low- and middle-income people have become the first in their families to go to college, thanks to a concept Pell thought up while skiing down a mountain in Switzerland.

I myself have never been abroad, but I can tell you this: Had I not gone to college, I wouldn't have any of the things I treasure most today - my family, my friends, my work, even my psychological well-being.

I am not rich now, by any means. I live in a three-bedroom, four-square house with creaky floor joists and cranky plumbing. The house was built in 1927, the same year my mother was born. She was too poor to go to college, and my father dropped out of school in the seventh grade. He told me once that serving as a cook in World War II was the best thing he'd ever done, but he came home from the war to a life of alcoholism, depression, and scattered employment.

My three older siblings - whose early-adult years predate the founding of the Pell Grant program - didn't go to college, either. It was just not something people in our family did. We didn't grow up hungry or physically abused. But we were afflicted with the most serious side effect of growing up poor: the inability to dream.

We felt inferior to the kind of people who took vacations and drove cars that started every time. These days my vacations aren't fancy, and my cars don't always start. But I am happy most of the time, and I am productive. And I am no longer ashamed.

The Pell Grant program has never been fully funded - and remains a source of controversy among lobbyists and politicians and other important people - so I went to Washington because my story bears repeating.

The Pell grants not only help individuals, they help our nation. And so I thank Senator Pell and anyone else who stands behind his legacy - on behalf of myself, my students, and all the others out there who might yet get a shot at a life better than the one they were born into.

*Beth Macy is a freelance writer and a writing instructor at Hollins University, in Roanoke, Va. The text of her Pell Grant speech was entered into the Congressional Record last Friday.

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