Education gave me an opportunity to escape poverty, and ingnited a passion for helping young people to pursue their dreams.
Every living child in this world has the same potential for a meaningful and happy life. But often people who have been marginalized throughout history don’t see a way out of the trap. So, all that amazing human potential, all that grit, all that hustle may be channeled into negative pathways. They don’t see any viable alternatives.
My name is Hans Cabra. I am Fulbright Scholar from Bogotá, Colombia pursuing a PhD in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at the University of Vermont. My research is focused on the impact of grit in achieving one’s dreams.
Here is the story of how I escaped poverty and created a better future, and how I'm helping others to do the same.
On an evening in March 2003, I was walking home from a friend’s house after a long day of homework. I had to walk fast because it was dark, and I lived in a sketchy neighborhood. As soon as I got home, I sat on the dining table, pulled out my notebook, started doing my homework. The phone rang. I picked it up. "Hans? What’s up? It’s me, the guy from the scholarship program. I have some news. You got the scholarship to Norway!"
I could not speak. I could not believe this.
Two months earlier I had applied to a scholarship program. Because there were only three full scholarships for my country and because the program was in English, I thought I would never get it. However, I was encouraged by my chemistry teacher to apply.
Knowing they would discourage me, I could not tell my parents. My mother completed elementary school and my father barely made it beyond middle school.
Chills ran through my body as soon as I put the phone down My mom woke up. She started crying and asking questions. "You got the scholarship, right? You going? I knew all along what you were doing, but I didn't want to discourage you.”
John, my little brother, saw what was happening and started crying. He was only 13 at the time. He hugged me and told me that he did not know what scholarship meant but that he knew I was going to leave him. We waited for my father to come home to tell him what happened. He returned home at 1:00 am, and asked me when I would be going.
I could not sleep that night. All I could think of was, I have to go. I have to go to Norway. This is my opportunity to escape poverty. I'm going to get my family out of this neighborhood.
Raising the Stakes
The weeks that followed were crazy. I needed to pack clothes in a suitcase I didn't even have, for a country I didn't even know existed. I was leaving everything I knew.
The night before the flight, my best friends and I got together. We all cried. We reminisced about the times we used to go around the neighborhood looking for usable trash to make toys. "Promise me that whatever happens, you will always be you," one my friends said.
I left on August 3, 2003. My family and all my friends came to the airport. We were more than 100 people. Soon smiles turned to tears. It was time to go. I said goodbye to everyone. The last one was John. I told him, “I love you. I'm not going to come back until I can get you out of here. I promise I'll get you guys out of here.”
Moment of Change
After a long trip, I made it to Norway. There I spent the most meaningful years of my life. I made a lot of friends. From Norway I went to Middlebury College. So far, everything was going according to plan. It seemed that I was going to be able to get myself and my family out of where we came from.
But over time, that escape plan changed. I realized that I didn't actually want to get myself or my family out of my community. Instead, I wanted to bring those opportunities back to my community.
World as it is Now
So that's how I found my way back to Bogotá, to my neighborhood. Together with my best friends we started an afterschool project to prevent at-risk behaviors.
With a friend from Chile (who also went to Norway with me), we decided to start an NGO (non governmental organization) that provides summer school programs to at-risk children in Chile and Colombia. We have been doing this for more than four years.
John just started his PhD in art studies. We are thinking of building a youth development center in the neighborhood. Our priority is to teach social skills and the arts as a way to tackle risky behaviors.
My mother just got a break from work, retiring after more than 25 years of cleaning floors. Her tears are now of joy. My father started his own entrepreneurial venture designing business cards.
And now I am a Fulbright Scholar and doctoral student doing research on afterschool programs and how to cultivate grit and perseverance. I believe that grit is the main ingredient in achieving success, but it has to be paired with the right opportunities.
These opportunities completely changed my life and the lives of my family members. I want to bring this transformative power of education to all the kids in my community and in my country.
About the author: Hans Cabra is a Fulbright Scholar from Bogota, Colombia who is pursuing a PhD in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at the University of Vermont.