(Originally published on LinkedIn)
My mother was a true believer in the power of education to transform lives.
She was a teacher who worked for more than 30 years educating students in the Washington, D.C., public school system. At home, she taught me and my siblings one thing above all: education matters. It’s the one thing that no one can ever take away from you.
Those words have made all the difference in my life.
I took them to heart, pushing myself to be the best student I could be. I started my schooling at a segregated elementary school, but earned a spot at an integrated magnet school for junior high. I worked hard there too, and won a scholarship to attend high school at one of Washington’s best private schools. From there, I got into Harvard, and with my mother’s words ringing in my ears every step of the way, ended up earning three degrees.
My mother was right, of course. My education has given me a varied and highly rewarding career path in the public and private sectors. It’s shaped how I spend my free time and how I spend my philanthropic dollars. Perhaps most important, it’s been extremely rewarding on a personal level. I count myself a “lifelong learner” who will never close the book on my own education.
I am so grateful for my mother’s influence and how she shaped my life and I’m also grateful for the women who made a difference in hers.
My grandmother was a teenager when she gave birth to my mom. She was a hard-working woman who raised my mother as a single parent with much love and sacrifice. But she had not been able to finish high school; education was not a focus of their household.
My mother’s elementary school principal stepped in to fill the gap. She saw that my mother was smart and thirsting to learn. So every morning, that principal stopped by my mother’s house and walked her to school. She made sure my mother never missed a day of class. So as I think about how my mother shaped my life, I think about that principal and the difference she made.
My mom would be really pleased to see where I’ve ended up leading TIAA, which was founded 100 years ago to help teachers retire with financial security after a lifetime spent educating the nation’s college students. TIAA now serves the wider non-profit community as well as academia. Our clients are people who make the world a better place, and we are celebrating our centennial with the Difference Maker 100 program, honoring people who make a difference in the world. We’re also highlighting the inspirational stories of people like Marian Wright Edelman, the founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund, and a tireless advocate for education.
My mother taught me that education is a gift that should never be taken for granted. She also taught me that people can make a profound impact on others’ lives, even by doing something as simple as walking a child to school. I’m fortunate to have had the benefit of the education she gave me and proud to help shine a spotlight on so many others who are making a difference in the world today.