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MARCH 2004

Education as the Key to Progress
by Matilda Raffa Cuomo

In the second edition of my book Who Mentored You: The Person Who Changed my Life, seventy-eight prominent people recalled how mentors contributed to their success in life by influencing and advising them in their earlier years. Since March is National Women's History Month, I must point out that many of the leaders featured in this special book are written by women of outstanding accomplishment who have not only contributed significantly to their fields of expertise but also changed society at large. There are excerpts from incredible leaders such as Marian Wright Edelman, Carol Bellamy, Elizabeth Dole, Whoopi Goldberg, Maya Lin, Diane Sawyer, Muriel Siebert, Lillian Vernon, Jessye Norman and many other inspiring women that will leave you in awe. All of these celebrated personalities mention how their mentors helped inspire and instruct them and drove them to achieve the pinnacle of success.

These powerful stories make clear that the most valuable message mentors delivered to them was the vital importance of getting the best education possible because education is the key that opens the door to opportunity. Certainly, in the past, there were people who were able to succeed in life despite the disadvantage of a limited traditional education. But since then the world has grown incredibly complex and demanding of formal education. Abraham Lincoln–who is regarded as perhaps the greatest president we ever had and unquestionably the most eloquent–had little more than a year in school. He had the strength of character and conviction to educate himself through classic literature and law books. But the chance of another Lincoln appearing on the scene is negligible. Every day the relentless advancement of exquisite technology calls for a higher and higher skill level in workers across every field. Globalization creates another strong pressure that can be dealt with only by increasing the amount of education received by our workers. Now workers in India, China, Malaysia and Mexico vie with the American workforce to produce goods and services. Most of the services provided by the workforce overseas are far less expensive than the services of the American workforce because the standard of living in these countries is much lower than ours.

Unless we want to reduce our own standard of living, we need to increase the level of our technology so that we can produce goods and services of a quality that our competitors cannot match because of our technological advantage. That requires that we have highly skilled workers in the United States or our businesses will find highly skilled workers elsewhere.

Right now–as hard as it is to believe–although we are the richest and most powerful nation in world history, only 1 in 5 of our workforce are highly skilled. Generally the designation "highly skilled" requires 4 years of education after secondary school. Nearly two hundred years ago the states of our nation recognized that for the nation to progress, our people would need to have a level of education suitable to handle the level of complexity in our economy. States back then, like New York, established the minimum standard of 12 years of education through secondary school and the need for workers at that level was considered vital. As a consequence, the states provided the education to everyone, rich or poor, in public schools.

It is difficult to understand–notwithstanding two hundred years of technical progress; why the minimum level of education in this country has not been lifted at least to the college level. Maybe the fact that we are now losing more and more jobs to workers overseas: skilled and unskilled, will inspire us to start making up for the terrible lag in our level of educational excellence that we have allowed to exist for so long.

During National Women's History Month, it's interesting to note that according to a new poll from Junior Achievement, there is a growing gender gap between girls and boys now when it comes to careers requiring higher education. In all, 73.9% of girls believe they need a four-year degree or graduate degree to obtain their dream job, while 61.5% of boys believe they do. One of the principle objectives of the Mentoring USA program is to help our youth meet the need they correctly perceive by promoting the educational enrichment for all children.

As a nation, we should learn a lesson that is expressed over and over by our good mentors to our respected leaders in my book Who Mentored You: The Person who Changed my Life: education is the key to individual and personal success and also the future progress of our great nation.#

Matilda Raffa Cuomo is the former First Lady of the City New York. She is Founder and Chair, Mentoring USA and Chair, National Committee for Advanced Placement Italian Language Course & Examination.




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