When Shameem Clark Hubbard, a St. Louis alderwoman, gives speeches she often tells people: I didn’t go to college, but I want you to.

Shameem, in fact, is the only person in her immediate family without a college degree. Instead, she was tracked toward trade school. She’s someone who learns with her hands.

“It put me on the right path,” she says.

She earned a license in cosmetology and opened her own hair salon. At the height of her business, which she owned for 15 years, she earned as much as $2,500 per week. She was elected alderman this spring; it’s a paid, four-year term, and she still works part-time in a different salon.

Her grandmother, Shameem says, was very upset with her for choosing a trade school over a college. Now that she has seen how Shameem’s life has unfolded, her grandmother has apologized. She’s proud. She doesn’t like Shameem giving speeches in which she tells people she didn’t go to college.

“Stop saying that. It doesn’t make a difference,” Shameem says her grandmother says now. “You are going to inspire someone.”

Shameem loves to learn. She loves to read. She loves to connect with people. Once she did actually sign up for community college.

But while she was sitting in class the salon would call, telling her she had a customer. Shameem didn’t want to pass up the business. “I’ve got to pay my light bill,” she remembers thinking. 

She didn’t even last a full semester.

Talking about college in the neighborhoods she represents can be hard. People have so many other things they need to think about: needs that aren’t getting met, tragedies to cope with. 

Just the night before, an 8-year-old girl was shot and killed leaving a football game near the community clean-up event where Shameem and residents of the West End neighborhood are trimming branches and clearing weeds from a corner lot. 

“When you are just trying to eat, literally, those things fall down on the list,” she says of college. “People are just dealing with so much.”

“When you are just trying to eat, literally, those things fall down on the list,” Shameem says of college. “People are just dealing with so much.”

It can help if schools get to kids early, start talking to them about college, getting them thinking about what it takes and why it matters. Shameem likes how one elementary school has named its classrooms for colleges, surrounding students with that context from a young age. 

There’s a lot of intelligence and resilience in a community like this. It often goes untapped or unrecognized, she says, and it’s not being channeled in the right directions. 

There is nothing good about drugs, of course, but drug dealers are businessmen, Shameem says. They invest in real estate. They show survival instincts. Some of them are smarter than CEO’s of Fortune 500 companies, she adds. Those CEO’s couldn’t survive a day in this world. 

What’s often missing in the communities she represents is confidence about the future, she says. “Optimism is missing. Hope is missing. So college falls … where?”

The Back-To-School Road Trip
Over eight days we’re driving from Minneapolis to New Orleans, talking about college with Americans along the way. Follow us on Twitter: @opencampusmedia.