By Joi Gordon (OU Law '93), as told to Jennifer Chen, for LearnVest.com
Gordon, C.E.O. for the national nonprofit organization Dress for Success Worldwide, shares how she earned a law degree and, later, landed a high-profile dream job—all with a state school education (and no student loan debt).
For my Caribbean family, college was the golden ticket. As the first generation to attend college in the United States, I knew that my family wasn’t too familiar with the ins and outs of the application process. But my parents, ever the hardworking and sacrificing types, promised to pay out-of-pocket for my first year of school, so I needed to find a place that we could all afford—a five-star education on a budget.
A school like Harvard or Yale just wasn’t a reasonable option. I knew the Ivies were out there, but I didn’t dare apply because their price tags were more than my parents could afford. And, quite frankly, those schools just weren’t on my radar at the time.
Living in the Midwest, you hear a lot about the big state colleges. I don’t think people outside the Midwest and the South can fully appreciate how much loyalty and excitement high school students feel when choosing to attend their state university. In Oklahoma, you either want to be a Sooner (University of Oklahoma) or a Cowboy (Oklahoma State University). It isn’t if you will go to college, but which college you will choose. For me, it was the University of Oklahoma all the way. Though the college campus was big, it still felt very welcoming. And the location was perfect: close to home, but still a few hours away.
When I was growing up, my mom worked very hard. My parents were divorced and she had custody of me, but my dad was definitely in the picture: He was there for me both emotionally and financially. For a time, we all lived in New York City and I saw my dad every weekend. Then, my mother and I moved to Oklahoma where the cost of living was cheaper and my mom could work “smarter, not harder,” she said. (These days, they call that work-life balance.)
My way of repaying my parents, so that their work wasn’t in vain, was to do well in school and achieve success. With them covering my freshman-year college tuition, I applied to become a resident adviser so my housing costs would be free. I majored in journalism, which, for me, was an opportunity to speak the truth and be a voice for those who are silenced. Through being an RA and other leadership positions I sought out on campus, my college pointed me toward scholarships, which paid for my next three years of tuition.
When I graduated, I wanted to continue my education. I’d always dreamed of being a lawyer. When it was time to apply to law school, I didn’t look any further than the University of Oklahoma. I enrolled in a summer course that awarded the person with the highest grade at the end of the program a full three-year tuition waiver, earned that top spot and applied the waiver toward law school.
When I graduated, I worked in a district attorney’s office where my colleagues who had attended Yale Law School and Georgetown Law were $100,000 in debt as a result of getting their law degrees. The starting salary in the DA’s office was $35,000, so those Ivy grads felt the burden of paying back their student loans. Many of them were prosecutors by day and bartenders at night. I didn’t have those burdens.
Meanwhile, I got to enjoy my job without worrying about how I would take care of my debts. I also got to pursue public interest law, which is not as high-paying as other law fields, but it was my passion. Some of my colleagues wound up choosing to go into more lucrative law fields such as corporate litigation, even though they loved public interest law, because they needed a higher salary.
People underestimate state schools. Yes, law school at Yale is a prestigious and wonderful program, but why come out of school with six-figure debt if you don’t have to? State schools are just as academically competitive, and great alumni have graduated from these universities. I’ve always been a practical person, so choosing a state school over an Ivy League university just made a lot of sense to me.
And it’s eventually led me from a position as Assistant District Attorney to being the head of Dress for Success. If I’d had student loans, or couldn’t pursue public interest law when I’d wanted to, that might not have been the case. Today, as C.E.O., I combine my love of serving the public with my journalism degree. I do a lot of the media for the company, and my education really helped prepare me for a large part of my job. I feel fortunate that I help run, along with many other creative folks, an organization that provides career development tools and networking opportunities for women in need. I love knowing that in some small way every single day, there’s something we do that makes a difference in someone else’s life.
Now my daughter is in her senior year of high school and we’re looking at colleges. It’s crazy how much some of the colleges are asking for tuition nowadays. Years ago I started contributing to a 529 college savings plan, and I have enough saved up to pay for four years of study at any State University of New York school. Of course, the amount could also cover four years out of state at the University of Oklahoma!
My wish for my daughter is to leave her chosen college four years later with a fully funded education. I want her to have just as many opportunities as I did, and even more.
Reprinted with permission from LearnVest.