As a first-generation college graduate, I’ve observed many of life’s struggles and limited opportunities experienced by my grandparents, parents, and siblings. And I’ve personally experienced them, albeit temporarily. Therefore, I cannot stress enough the magnitude of the value of having a college education.

I always did well in school, but did not go to college immediately after completing high school. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to go; it was because the pursuit of a college education was foreign to my family. It only took one “not qualified due to level of education” rejection notice to drag me into reality, and fast. It was a long and tough road, but the opportunities and rewards my college education afforded me are immeasurable.

As for the high cost of education, there are smart financial ways to go about obtaining a quality education. I completed almost two full years of credit courses at a community college at a much lower cost than a traditional four-year university. However, I worked closely with the counseling support provided by both the community college and university to assure that what I was taking fit within my overall education plan. I was expected to hold a high grade point average and I can assure you that the amount of effort you put in will determine what you get out. I lived at home, which eliminated housing costs, and I spent endless hours applying for and receiving various grants.

As potential college students grapple with the rising cost of higher education and tight labor market, I encourage them to think about the return on investment (ROI), not in the short term (today), but in terms of a lifelong investment strategy. Go beyond thinking that the ROI of a college education is limited to providing employment opportunities and include the “dividends” or returns that are paid over and over again: Countless experiences to learn from, exposure to diversity and differing points of view, opportunities to challenge yourself, building your knowledge base and confidence, developing a network of friends that will support you throughout life, and providing the chance to discover your passions.

My words of wisdom: The best investment you can make is in yourself, and always be thinking about what is yet to come. The best jobs of tomorrow do not exist today.