When I graduated from high school in 1980, the “American dream” was the guiding ideal for many, if not most, of my classmates.

We were part of what I tend to think of as the post-Great Depression generation, with our parents having been born into that economic strife and our grandparents having struggled through it to provide for their families.

One could argue that the American dream was a notion grounded in the Declaration of Independence, which proclaimed that “all men are created equal” and have the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Over time, but particularly through the latter half of the 20th century, living the American dream meant having the opportunity-- through hard work-- for prosperity, personal success and fulfillment and socioeconomic upward mobility.

People could work really hard at a factory, pay the bills and raise and promote the wellbeing of their children. Theoretically, their offspring, as a result of parental sacrifice and guidance, would have a pathway to an even better life, a higher standard of living.

In fact, this was once very much the reality for families in North Carolina. With abundant employment opportunities at textile mills and factories of all types, generations of families advanced themselves.

Beyond high school, no education or training was needed to get a factory job with a decent wage, rise to a supervisory position and live a solid middle class existence. Despite the occasional minor economic downturn, America had been moving ahead in this fashion since the end of World War II.

With Europe in tatters because of the war and the Far East still vastly undeveloped, the U.S. spent about two decades as the world’s manufacturing behemoth. “Made in America” meant just that, with products that were second to none.

Such is not the case today, in terms of manufacturing jobs requiring unskilled labor. The traditional industrial revolution has long since moved to less developed areas of the world, where millions of people are willing to work long hours for next to nothing, and where companies don’t have to worry about safety regulations and deplorable working conditions.

These days, jobs are available in North Carolina and the U.S. as a whole, but they require further education and advanced training. Such jobs tend to provide wages commensurate with the training that has had to be undertaken.

The modern reality is that failure to continue one’s education and training beyond high school will almost certainly result in limited economic possibilities for the future. The exception to this rule is entrepreneurialism: finding success through starting one’s own business.

At the same time, many people have no desire or ability to attend a four-year institution of higher learning. With the need to pay for ever more expensive health insurance, car insurance, rent or mortgages, car payments, groceries and so forth, well paying employment is a necessity.

In this area, that’s where Wilkes Community College comes in.

At WCC’s commencement exercises this Tuesday, many students will be receiving associate degrees and preparing to attend a four-year school elsewhere. But many more will be taking their degrees, certificates and training and entering directly into the job market.

Because of WCC, and other community colleges across the state, people are again able to begin pursuing the American dream. It’s an investment of time and effort that is priceless. For both the students and society, this investment is transformational.

These students from Wilkes and surrounding counties will be able to support themselves and their families because of their association with WCC.

The college, since its inception in the 1960s, has been a valuable resource for Wilkes, Ashe and Alleghany counties. For the students, it’s the difference between success and a lifetime of just barely getting by.

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