Honoring the trail-blazers among us

Aaahhh, the three-day weekend! Even when you love your job as much as I do, there’s just something wonderful about a three-day weekend ─ like a tiny gift jumping at you from your calendar.  Beyond the sunshine, the cookouts and the beach trip (if you were lucky), I hope that you took some time this Memorial Day weekend to honor the true spirit of the holiday, remembering our fallen heroes who so bravely served our country and sacrificed for the values we hold dear. 

I’ve always been fascinated by heroes. Super Friends was my favorite cartoon, and I had the metal lunchbox with the puffed-up characters to prove it. That’s one kind of hero. The kind that fights for justice ─ the swoop-in and save-the-day type.  We see a more human variety of this kind of hero in the stories of teachers in Oklahoma, who covered children with their own bodies to shield them from the tornado’s destruction. 

Then, there’s another kind of hero. The kind that accomplishes seemingly impossible feats, things that no one else has ever done, allowing us to hope and even believe that maybe, just maybe, we can follow in their footsteps and do the same. It’s this kind of hero that particularly interests me. Let’s call them the inspirational heroes.

I asked my grandfather once who his hero was when he was growing up.  Without missing a beat, he said, “Tommy Edison.” That’s right ─ he said “Tommy,” as though they were good friends. To my grandfather it may have felt that way, as he spent a lifetime in his legacy, working at General Electric for 39 years before retiring with several patents to his credit. 

I was reminded of inspirational heroes again when I went to the ACC baseball tournament on Saturday, mostly for the sunny day of it. No, my Demon Deacons were not in attendance, but a friend of mine was ─ Christie Stancil Wood. She is the first and the only female talent scout working for Major League Baseball. As I was catching up with her, conversation naturally turned to her daughter, born just last year. It occurred to me what a role model, an inspiration, and likely, a hero Christie will be for her daughter.

Speaking of baseball, I also went to see the movie “42” this weekend about the trail-blazing baseball legend Jackie Robinson. There were lots of references to his undeniable hero status. Exceeding Robinson’s athletic accomplishments, he faced gruesome prejudice, discrimination and bigotry with a steel will and a courageous heart, driving progress and change all around him. In 1946, when Ed Charles was only 12 years old, he would run home from school to watch Jackie Robinson in spring training with the Montreal Royals (before he got called up to the Dodgers). Charles and his friends knew that they were watching greatness personified and that Jackie Robinson was about to make a difference for them, for the game and for the world.  Charles called Robinson his hero, and he went on to the big leagues himself.

Although not every hero will achieve the magnitude of Jackie Robinson, there’s a special group of inspirational heroes whose impact we celebrate here at NCCF. Caped crusaders armed with books, notebooks and pencils. Boy- and girl-wonders who go where no one ─ at least no one in their families ─ has gone before.  They are our NCCF first-generation scholars.  Recently, we asked them to tell us what it means to be a first-generation college student, and we learned a lot from them.  Each experience is unique, but one common sentiment is that they know that their younger brothers, sisters and other family members are looking to them to succeed. They know that their accomplishments allow these younger generations to dream and to believe that they, too, can go to college someday. 

Just by getting there, these students have already overcome challenges unique to first-generation college students, and they will continue to do so as they pursue their education. When compared to their counterparts who have at least one parent with a bachelor’s degree or higher, first-generation students are less likely to aspire to higher education, less likely to take the necessary steps to get there, less likely to be able to enroll full-time and less likely to obtain a degree within five years. So, the ones who do succeed are heroes of the inspirational kind. They have a dream, follow it courageously, achieve it despite adversity and make others believe that they can do the same. There may not be any lunch boxes with their images on them, but if you look really closely, you might just catch a glimpse of the “S” on their chests.