The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How I got out of poverty: ‘I don’t like to think of myself as an outlier’

Isaac Solano celebrating his college graduation with his grandparents Bill and Stella Chacon in June 2013. (Courtesy of Isaac Solano)
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Isaac Solano started writing to me when he was in middle school. I wish I still had his e-mails, but that was two newsrooms ago and I didn’t think to save them so that on the day he becomes mayor of Denver, I could provide further evidence of how far he has come. Not that he really needs either the reminder or the evidence. A quick trip back to his Denver neighborhood suffices.

I called Isaac after reading what seemed to be an onslaught of news and research related to income inequality and social mobility – too much of one, not enough of the other – the sum of which suggests that the poor are screwed and ever shall remain so.

An antidote to discouragement is in order, I told Isaac. The result is his story, which we’ve published today and which we hope will be the first in an occasional series. If you are reading this as a pitch to send us your story of how you defied the odds to escape poverty, then you are reading correctly.

Send us your story. Keep it short. Send a photo.  You’ll see the form below. 

(To read about the economic case for mentoring, click here.)

The following is a compilation of conversations. It has been edited for clarity. 

Isaac Solano, 23, graduate student, Columbia University:

I grew up in a working-class home in the Globeville neighborhood of Denver. My neighborhood was not always the best or even the healthiest place. It was once home to the largest smelter in North America and was once known as the state’s most-polluted urban Zip code. Globeville is a mostly Latino neighborhood and nearly all the kids who go to the public schools – as I did – qualify for government-subsidized lunch.

My family life was no cake walk. My mother passed away when I was 5 years old. My father never truly cared enough to stick around and raise his son. I was raised by my humble, beautiful and loving maternal grandparents, Stella and Bill Chacon.

Sometimes, I think it’s a miracle how far I have come. A little, skinny Latino kid who grew up in one of Denver’s poorest and most polluted neighborhoods is now a graduate student at an Ivy League university.

So, when I read stories about why poor kids don’t graduate from college or how poor kids who do everything right still do no better than rich kids who do everything wrong, it’s disheartening. I react both personally and as a student studying education policy at the Teachers College at Columbia University.

Intellectually, I try to understand why this is the case, and I think it’s all about wealth passed from one generation to the next, having that trust fund or even owning a house that can be passed on. Wealth creates a huge advantage in building a foundation for opportunity that a kid who has brilliant mind but who grows up in the projects just doesn’t have.

But, as a kid from Globeville, it makes me sad. I don’t think the kids I grew up with really understand the disadvantages they face. They believe that if they work hard and play by the rules, they will make it to the next level. They buy into the American dream, but it is flawed when it comes to people left out of mainstream society. You can work hard and play by the rules, but it’s still a tremendous challenge to get to the next level.

At the same time, I don’t like to think of myself as an outlier because it implies that my success cannot be widely duplicated or that it cannot be used to foster change in other students. And I absolutely don’t believe that.

So what made the difference for me? I had a strong and unwavering support system that included: great mentors, excellent traditional public school teachers and counselors, and two wonderful grandparents. I had a group of people who never gave up on helping me succeed, no matter how daunting the odds looked. Mentoring is so important. It’s not the only piece — you need a rigorous high school education to get through college — but it’s vital.

Many of my best friends growing up were not as lucky. The hope of leaving our neighborhood and pursuing their dreams of going to college did not exist. They did not have a parent or a proxy parent whom they could go to and say, “Hey, what was college like?”

That’s precisely why I chose the education path I am on now, so that I could one day help create policies that will help students realize their dreams no matter their starting point. We cannot be okay with the continued failure of our system when it comes to our neediest students. We poor and working-class kids are not any less smart than our more advantaged peers. We simply deal with issues many people should never have to deal with.

I’m proof that with enough support, success in higher education and beyond can be the norm, not the exception.

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