If you are a fellow GenXer, whether you are ready to face it or not, we are fast approaching some major milestones. Last year, I celebrated my 20th law school reunion. This weekend, I returned to my undergraduate campus for the 25th college reunion, and next year I will be heading back to my high school for our 30th reunion. Soon thereafter, although it is hard to admit it, in just a few years I will be turning 50 around the same time that my son will be graduating high school, which will make me (gulp) an empty nester.
The way I see it, we can either let these moments pass us by, or we can rise to the occasion embracing the magnitude of each milestone and joining our friends in celebrating all that we have accomplished to get to this point in our lives. Given those two choices, I am opting for the latter and in that vein, I agreed to be part of our law school’s reunion committee last year, and through that endeavor was able to reconnect with a lot of my classmates leading up to our celebration. This weekend, not only did I participate in my college reunion activities, but I actually led one of the events after my alma mater graciously asked me to do a talk about my children’s book. Next year, not only will I return to my prep school campus as an alumna, but also as an elected member of Andover’s Alumni Council, whose mission is to inspire all alumni to live up to the Academy’s values and remain engaged.
All of my involvement might seem a bit over the top to some, but not if you understand where it stems from: survivor guilt. I am a first-generation American, raised by a single mom in a not so nice part of New York City. English was not my first language, but I was fortunate enough to learn quickly and at the age of 14 I won a scholarship to boarding school that changed my life. I then became the first in my family to graduate college, and I put myself through law school. When I started my legal career 21 years ago, I had nothing except a stellar education and over $115,000 of student debt.
This past quarter of a century, the journey has not been an easy one for me, despite what you might see on my social media feed, which my best friend refers to as my “Arizona sunshine report.” But let’s be real– the legal world is cut throat, and DC is an intense place to live. And just like everyone else, I have had my share of heart break, health scares and financial setbacks– all without that lovely safety net that so many of my other friends could rely on in their times of need. The one thing I did have though that so many others lack in this country is that gift of an education that pulled me out of poverty.
Despite what some may think, that little Hispanic girl with the thick curly hair in hand-me down clothes, eating government-issued cheese and subsidized cafeteria lunches all those years ago is not buried in Queens somewhere, but rather she is very much alive inside me, and together we wonder about all of those that did not make it. How many of us actually break the cycle of poverty? Without knowing the actual stats, I’m guessing the odds are not in our favor, but it took me a long time to realize that.
Only as an adult, and as a single mother myself have I truly come to appreciate how difficult life can be for those that do not know how to ask for services and lack the resources to get them on their own. Our public education system is broken, and so is our health care in this country. Without access to proper medical care and schools, how can we ever expect our children to succeed in life, let alone stand a fighting chance of simply surviving?
I know I am not alone in my concern about the state of affairs in the U.S. But how many of us are actually standing up and doing something about it? For those of us with survivor guilt, public service isn’t a choice but really a necessity. We need to give a helping hand to those that stand where we once stood so many years ago, and in doing so we will slowly pay back all those that helped us get to where we are today.
Now, if you aren’t happy with where you are now, at least know there is still time to make a change. As the saying goes, be the change you want to see. And when you go to reunions, avoid comparing yourself with others– we all have a backstory, so rather than focusing on what you don’t have, just focus on what you do have. It is no small feat to have gotten to this point in our lives– almost half a century, and that in itself is cause for giving yourself a moment to take a bow.
By Regina A. DeMeo