Guest Essays, Letters to the Editor, Opinion

Guest essay: To the mawmaws and pawpaws: We need you to encourage kids to go to college

by Alicia Kalka 

I grew up in southern West Virginia, in the small town of St. Albans (about 30 minutes south of Charleston). My mawmaw and I lived in a four-room house with our dog Buffy, across from the railroad tracks. I am one of many West Virginia children who was raised by a grandparent.  

Did you know that today, many of our children in West Virginia are being raised by a grandparent? My parents, both hard working, had me at a very young age. Due to our family circumstances, I was fortunate I had a mawmaw who stepped right in to help raise me when I was a little girl and never missed a beat with my upbringing! 

My mawmaw worked for the state capital in Charleston most of her career. She worked hard as an administrative assistant. She caught the bus every morning and every evening, yet she always managed to have hot food on the table. (And they were great meals — if you know Appalachian culture, you know we love our potatoes and meat!) 

College wasn’t part of her life, but she made sure it was part of mine. She was proud of her job and of her work, but she wanted me to have a better job than her. She didn’t want me to have to take the bus every day to work, walk to the bus station to catch the bus or worry about how we were going to pay for gas. She wanted me to have a career that would be able to support myself and my family, and she instilled that belief — that we are each worthy of such a career — in me. 

With all the (sometimes depressing) conversations about going to college I continue to see on the local news and read about online, I can’t sit back any longer, nor can I remain silent!  

As a West Virginian, I feel obligated to shout from the hollers and hills that we’ve got to do better. Did you know that fewer than 46% of our high school graduates in West Virginia attend college? This is a significant drop since COVID-19. In West Virginia, our youth are smart, yet we are ranked 50th for educational attainability in the nation when it comes to sending our high school students to college. 

We’re having a national conversation about the value of going to college, and I want to ensure you know there is a return on investment (ROI) on getting a college degree.  

Georgetown University’s Public Policy Institute found in 2020 that 65% of all jobs in the economy required a postsecondary education and training beyond high school. The Economic Policy Institute found high school graduates in 2020 made $20.09, while graduates with a bachelor’s degree earned $36.84.  

Getting a college degree is worth it! It changed the entire trajectory of my life, led me to a career I love and got me where I am today. 

As West Virginians, we are tenacious, we are resilient and we are proud, hard-working people. I know we can turn this around — our youth and state depend on it — but we need you!  We need the mawmaws and pawpaws to encourage our youth to go to college. Encourage your grandkids to go to college — the future of West Virginia depends on it. 

Alicia Kalka has two decades of experience in higher education administration and student affairs. Serving as an Associate Vice President of Enrollment and Student Life at Fairmont State, Alicia oversees the Admissions and Welcome Center team within Enrollment Management, in addition to various student life areas at Fairmont State University.