The Long Climb

By: Dennis Murphy
Dennis Murphy pictured here sitting on a bus in Tibet.

I started out on my college career about five years ago in the spring of 2012. I had stumbled a bit on my way, in part because high school and I did not get along very well. I knew I wanted to go to college, which was where all of my dreams and hopes for the future resided. Unfortunately, I had no money, underwhelming grades, limited mobility, and poor health.

“I know finding your way to college is one of the most difficult things many high schoolers face. To me, it was a daunting task.”

That was when my mother started to go on and on about the virtues of community college. I remember giving her blank stares, “community college?” During my time of ignorance, I used to be highly dismissive of the very notion of a junior college. How good could it be? How would going there help me reach my dreams?

Boy was I surprised. It did not take long for me to fall in love with my sleepy little Bedford campus at Middlesex Community College. Massachusetts, it turns out, has been working hard to ensure that community colleges are the access points to higher education, and it showed. I worked hard, I got good grades, and I started getting active on campus.

It was not easy. There were a few dark chapters. The recession had hit us hard, and our finances never really recovered. On January 21, 2013 we collectively had the worst day of our lives when we found my little brother dead just an hour before noon. I’m not going to lie, that was a point that nearly broke me. Nearly.

After a few months of agony, I finally started to do something. I reached out, and I volunteered. I went out and served my community, I joined student government, I dove into the honors program, and I would never spend more than a few moments alone in my own mind. I realized there was so much work that could be done, and I grew attached to more than just a grade.

So here I was, something of an overachieving busybody at MCC, and my associate’s degree was imminently approaching. I had applied for funding for college, because I was in an even worse spot finance-wise at this point. David Kalivas, something of a renaissance man-type history professor at my school, encouraged me to look at the Jack Kent Cooke scholarship.

I remember pouring my heart out into that application, having all of the emotions knotted inside me escaping as I answered essay after essay. I submitted it, and then resigned myself to a future rejection notice. It was time to apply for my four year college, and so I did. One of the schools I applied to was American University, a school specializing in international relations in Washington, D.C. The cost of attendance was prohibitive, but I hoped for a chance to go.

Crash! Bam! Explosions! Not really sure how else to say this, but two amazing things happened thereafter that would change my life. I was honored to receive the Jack Kent Cooke scholarship, and American University sent me an acceptance letter, offering me about $20,000 a semester to go. I was sold, and off to DC I went.

“The ability to obtain an education should be an open opportunity for everyone…”

The rest, one might say, was history. The greatest obstacle to higher education was achieved at this point, but it has not been quiet. This past year has been especially hectic. I climbed the Great Wall of China, I passed through the plateau of Tibet, and now it is time to look on towards the next step. College is how you get to where you are going, but it is not itself the destination.

“If there is one thing to take away from all this, it is that you are not alone.”

I know finding your way to college is one of the most difficult things many high schoolers face. To me, it was a daunting task. The ability to obtain an education should be an open opportunity for everyone, and our First Lady has been trying to democratize the knowledge and skills that can help others like me find their way into the halls of your future university.

If there is one thing to take away from all this, it is that you are not alone. Find a supportive group of friends that want to see you succeed. Forge connections with professors and mentors who can help you get to where you want to go. There are tons of people who can connect you with ways to fund your education or who can help you through your troubles.

Even if you have nothing now, tomorrow that might not be true. When I started my journey, I only had a few words of encouragement from my family. Now that I am entering my next phase, I have the means to build my own destiny. I am not unique. My story is one in a great ocean of stories. Yours is just as profound, and just as important. So reach out, and make your move. When you do, the world better make room.