I never made it past the ninth grade. My circumstances were not unlike millions of other teens today, who live in tough working class neighborhoods surrounded by drugs, violence and crime, and who struggle to stay on the right path without positive influences.
Most high school dropouts don't end up with successful careers in Hollywood. I was lucky. Compared with high school graduates, dropouts are more likely to be unemployed, in poor health, living in poverty or on public assistance.
And this doesn't just affect an unlucky few. Every day, 7,000 students drop out of high school - more than 1.2 million a year. More than 40 million adults nationwide lack a high school diploma. These high school dropouts typically earn $200,000 less than high school graduates over their lifetime.
For me, this crisis isn't just a national problem. It's entirely personal.
I was fortunate to find out I could attend high school online. For almost a year, I've been taking classes and studying any chance I could get - on the set, traveling for work and at home. It has been both humbling and challenging, but I'm happy to report that I am officially a high school graduate, having received my diploma this summer.
It shouldn't take luck for people to be able to access the education they need to help overcome life's obstacles. Investment in education is a no-brainer in promoting personal and career growth and supporting our economic recovery.
Fortunately, other organizations agree. Through my charity, the Mark Wahlberg Youth Foundation, I've partnered with organizations making a difference, like the Taco Bell Foundation for Teens. Their Graduate for Más program empowers teens to make a personal commitment to graduate high school while providing the tools, support and community that high school students need to stay on track - resources I wish I had access to as a teen.
Through my work with Taco Bell, I was able to meet with teens in these communities across the country, who are overcoming extraordinary obstacles to graduating high school. I've heard their stories -- stories of family trouble, poverty and crime -- yet I also hear strength from our nation's young people.
And the Taco Bell Foundation team heard it too. They recently shared with me that their Graduate for Más commitment has expanded even further by partnering with ed2go and Smart Horizons for their Career Online High School (COHS). Taco Bell is starting from the inside out - funding high school completion and career certificates for Taco Bell Team Members in their pilot program through the partnership.
Like me, they will return to high school via online classes. I can only hope their experience will be as positive as mine. Across the country, there are teens AND adults who aren't getting the resources and support they need to succeed. We can't just throw them back in classrooms and expect them to survive.
We need everyone -- families, leaders, and organizations -- to step up and take responsibility for their communities' educational futures.
I was able to do it because I knew I wasn't alone, that other teens and adults were going through the same thing I was in balancing work and family in order to better themselves. To those students struggling every day and - most importantly -- to those who are looking for a second chance, I have a message for you: never give up. Keep believing in yourselves and don't make small plans.
You are not alone. I can now look at my kids every day knowing that I didn't just do this for me -- I did it for them, and I did it for all the other teens and adults who have inspired me by their commitment to graduate.
If we don't live by example, then what do we live by? I am proud to re-introduce myself to you today as:
Mark Wahlberg - High School Graduating Class of 2013.