During my sophomore year at Roxborough High in Philadelphia, there was a violent riot during which students were injured, police stormed the building and the school cafeteria was shuttered. This incident, combined with a number of others that plagued the school, made learning incredibly difficult and forced my parents and me to seek other educational options that would unleash my true potential.
I was lucky. At 16, with some scholarship assistance, I was able to enroll in Montgomery County Community College in suburban Philadelphia and have those credits apply to my high school diploma. There, I was able to focus, work hard, study under dedicated professors and earn a 4.0 grade point average. This opened my eyes to the possibility of attending the four-year college of my choice. I applied to several, but I really wanted to pursue political science in Washington, D.C., where I would have an up-front view of how the federal government operates and develops public policies to help ensure that the American dream can finally be realized by those of us who have yet to experience it.
When I was accepted to Georgetown University, I was thrilled. But when my parents looked over the initial financial aid package, they didn't see how we could do it.
My mother is employed by the City of Philadelphia's Health Department. She often works 12-hour days to support my 9-year-old brother and me. My father is a realtor with his own dream of being a classroom teacher. My dad suffers from a neuromuscular disease called Myasthenia Gravis, which has rendered him weak and immobilized. His condition was very severe when I was a young child, resulting in frequent hospitalization. It improved for several years but then worsened considerably during my senior year in high school, which created significant financial challenges for my family. In spite of his disability, he kept providing for us to the extent he could and even pursued teacher certification, student-teaching at his former high school.
Georgetown offered $26,000 in scholarships and I received several small scholarships from organizations like the Urban League and the NAACP. Still, we were faced with a significant amount to pay. The Perkins Loan helped my parents fill that gap.
Last week, I was talking to my mother and, without hesitation, she said, "It still wouldn't have worked without that Perkins Loan." She is absolutely right.
The Perkins Loans, along with Georgetown scholarships, outside grants and the part-time jobs I held throughout my college years enabled me to pursue my degree in government and philosophy. In the process, I landed internships on Capitol Hill and in my home city of Philadelphia and gained admission to public policy and leadership programs at Green for All, the Center for Progressive Leadership and the Drum Major Institute for Public Policy, all the while learning how government works firsthand.
Last year, there were 840 Perkins recipients at Georgetown University. About 350 of those were undergraduates like me, and they received average loans of $2,688. Every one of those students also received Georgetown scholarships as well as other federal financial aid. There were also 60 graduate students and more than 200 students in both the law and medical schools who received Perkins Loans. These financial aid packages enabled many students to pursue degrees that otherwise would be completely out of reach.
It's imperative that Congress find a way to preserve and maintain the Perkins Loan program. As the U.S. continues to fall further behind other nations in the proportion of adults with higher education, we cannot afford to eliminate resources that open the doors of colleges and universities to talented young people of all backgrounds.
I understand the daunting nature of our federal budget woes, but the Perkins loan program is an investment that will deliver incredible economic returns over time. It has made a huge difference in my life, and in the lives of millions of Americans. It is an affirmation of a core American value -- that in America, you can go as far as diligence and hard work will take you.
I will be graduating in May, and I am in the process of applying to teach back home in Philadelphia. As a black male, I recognize the importance of young people of color having role models who come from similar backgrounds and share similar experiences, so they can see hope and opportunity in circumstances that can appear hopeless and bleak and understand what something like a Perkins loan can do for them.
Joseph Hill is a senior at Georgetown University. This essay is adapted from testimony he delivered before the House Budget Committee on Wednesday, September 22, 2010.