11/01/2012 09:29 am ET Updated Jan 01, 2013

Education Key for Latino Families

My mom used to tell me that the most valuable thing she owned was her library card.

We were poor, but that's not what she was talking about. My mom knew that education opened doors and opened minds. She used to tell me, "Rich, get an education, it will set you free. If you get an education you can be anything you want."

I failed her at first by dropping out of high school, but I got a second chance when I joined the Army and got my GED while training for Special Forces. After serving in Vietnam, I went to community college, college and finally medical school on the GI Bill -- and it turned out, all those years later, that my mom was right.

I recently had the opportunity to visit the Girls Leadership Academy of Arizona in Phoenix. I got to meet a wonderful group of students that are working hard and eager to learn despite facing some challenges to getting the education they deserve. Many of the kids there come from poor families and have to travel on the bus for more than an hour to get to school. And like me, many are Latino -- some were even DREAMers working hard to earn their way.

Throughout our country, there are working parents who want their kids to get a better education so they can have a brighter future. Even if the parents were never able to get an education, the entire family is working together to get see that first kid get a degree -- then the second, the third and on and on.

I know that because I came from one of those families. My mom gave everything to make sure her kids got an education. That's what is great about this country -- that one person's drive to make sure their kids live a better life can impact every generation to come.

Having lived that experience, it was invigorating to see these smart and dedicated young women.

I got some of the most thoughtful questions I've heard during this entire campaign from the girls at that school. And when I looked around the room, I saw the next generation of nurses, teachers, engineers, doctors and anything else these strong and bright young women want to be.

As a Latino who grew up poor, faced discrimination and saw so many of my friends never make it out of the rough neighborhood we grew up in, it's hard to describe how proud I was to see these young women talking about where they wanted to go to college and what career paths they wanted to follow.

But more than just as a Latino who has lived that experience, it made me proud as an American that we live in a country that never ceases to provide opportunities to families that work hard and sacrifice -- no matter who they are or where they come from.