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Hillary Clinton’s legacy on STEM is why anyone still uncertain should give her their vote

If you want to understand what Clinton can do for America, talk to a millennial math-and-science nerd from Arkansas who benefited from her visionary work.

Melina Mara / Getty

Thirty-four years ago, I was born to two broke students in Fayetteville, Ark. Historically, a poor state that’s ranked near the bottom in education, Arkansas might not have seemed like an ideal launchpad for chasing one’s dreams. I probably wasn’t supposed to wind up as an executive at a publicly traded consumer internet company, but I got very lucky: The same year I was born, a brilliant outsider had just been appointed to lead a revolution in Arkansas's educational system.

My parents didn’t have much money. I qualified for a subsidized lunch at my elementary school. I remember my mom layering me with extra blankets on chilly winter nights instead of turning on the heat. I don’t remember ever feeling self-conscious about coming from modest means, though, as many of my friends came from even less fortunate conditions.

Arkansas is one the poorest states in the United States. In the early ’80s, the median family income was just above $12,000 (approximately $35,000 in today’s dollars). The state ranks next to dead last in percentage of the population with at least a bachelor’s degree (around 19 percent). It is both religiously and politically conservative, with deep socioeconomic stratification. Walmart, which sits at the top of the Fortune 500 list, was founded 30 miles north of where I was born.

Being a child of the 1980s in Arkansas, I should have gotten a lousy public education, and barely gotten into college. As a result, I would be struggling to make ends meet with limited career opportunities, and facing the same difficulties as many fellow millennials today: Underemployment, mounting debt or waiting to leave home for lack of opportunity.

But I got lucky: Seven years before I was born, Bill Clinton persuaded his girlfriend Hillary Rodham to give up the incredible opportunities that come with graduating from Yale Law School. She joined him in Arkansas, where their legendary rocketship of a partnership would take off. While she was the First Lady of Arkansas, Hillary Clinton changed what seemed like an inevitable path for thousands of children in our state through her progressive reforms of the state’s educational system.

Here’s a clip from Frontline’s recent outstanding documentary on Clinton and Trump, which describes Hillary Rodham’s decision to move to Arkansas and her friends’ reaction.

It still blows my mind when I reflect on what a force of nature young Bill Clinton was in the ’70s and ’80s. By the time I was born, the 36-year-old wonderkid had already served as attorney general (at age 30, in 1976), governor (at age 32, in 1978), and as an ex-governor (at age 34, in 1980). I was four months old when Bill Clinton was reelected to serve his first of three successive terms before eventually becoming the first Democratic president to unseat a Republican incumbent since 1932.

Despite all those achievements, the most important thing Bill Clinton did for Arkansas, and for me, during those years was empowering his wife Hillary Clinton — particularly in driving education policy. Their political ascent in Arkansas couldn’t have come at a more important time for my family and me: In 1978, Arkansas had been named the worst public education system in the nation. When I was born just four years later, radical shake-ups to Arkansas’s floundering public school system were already under way.

Hillary Clinton’s championing of children within public policy circles was old hat for her. She had already authored a heavily cited paper underscoring the basis for children’s legal protections while at Yale Law, and she developed the Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families shortly after moving to Arkansas. However, one of the most important roles Clinton would undertake was chair of the Arkansas Education Standards Committee. It was there that she spearheaded bold educational reforms. She worked for free, and she broke from the historical precedent of the more ceremonial-oriented first ladies before her.

As her husband’s point person on education, Hillary Clinton had a broad mandate to shift public policy and fundamentally alter the conditions of children in the state — and she did so aggressively. Her initiatives included improving the teacher-to-student ratio while increasing funding and standards. It also meant the creation of programming for “gifted and talented” students. Some plans she laid would only take effect years later, and Arkansas kids like me would have doors opened long after she and Bill Clinton moved into the White House.

I was a child in Arkansas while Hillary was empowered to make a focused effort on improving outcomes for children. From fourth through ninth grade, I attended a “gifted and talented education” (GATE) class, a program built as part of Hillary Clinton’s reforms by the Standards Committee. The classes were loosely structured, with no rigid testing schedules or rote memorization, but they encouraged critical discourse and embraced creative divergence. GATE opened my eyes to a world of opportunity.

Hillary Clinton’s educational reforms were year-round. From seventh through 12th grade, I was able to attend multi-week, residential summer learning programs at small universities across Arkansas that offered middle- and high-schoolers immersive camps in fields like mathematics, theater, geology and more. Charismatic professors taught all of the programs. Most importantly for my family, they were provided by the state of Arkansas at no cost to students. The programs, known as “Academic Enrichment for the Gifted in the Summer” (AEGIS) started in 1984, a year after Hillary Clinton assumed the chair position of the Standards Committee. By the 1990s, AEGIS had ballooned to more than 25 programs serving thousands of students every summer. The program would not have existed without Hillary Clinton’s leadership.

Mathematics and sciences (or what we call “STEM” today) were of particular importance to Clinton. In a 1983 interview with the Associated Press, she remarked, while suggesting that Arkansas had overemphasized athletics, “I think it’s time for getting a little fanatic about math and sciences.” STEM is the foundation of today’s technology industry, and only a handful of pioneers in the public education space had the foresight to appreciate its value for future members of the workforce. By far the most significant impact Hillary Clinton’s educational reforms had in my life was through her work to create a free public boarding school for math-and-science nerds like me: The Arkansas School for Mathematics and Sciences (ASMS).

Today, ASMS is one of the most competitive and prestigious public high schools in the country. Each year, around 150 rising 11th graders are admitted to attend the two-year, STEM-focused institution in Hot Springs, Ark. The school was her brainchild. While she had already moved to Washington by the time it opened, she sent a congratulatory video to the charter class sharing the story of the school’s genesis:

For me, attending the school was as important an educational experience as going to college. In fact, ASMS classes were more challenging than most of my college courses. In a state where many school districts topped off at Algebra II, I was taking number theory, biochemistry, computer programming and advanced statistics. There was a class dedicated to experimental methods, and the school paired me with a college professor to develop a science fair project that was publishable. I use these skills on a daily basis both to develop data-powered tools for advocating Yelp's public policy positions and to communicate with our engineering teams. Roaming an engineering or product floor at Yelp, and observing my fellow nerds' toiling offers a bit of nostalgia for the vibe of ASMS's evening study hours.

Like other programs initiated by Clinton, ASMS provides a genuinely level playing field that has opened doors for students of all backgrounds. Over a third of admitted students qualify for free or reduced lunch at their home schools. ASMS takes students who grew up in rural Arkansas and otherwise would have had limited opportunity, and chisels them into MIT recruits.

My story isn’t unique. I can’t help but wonder what fellow alumni would be doing today had Hillary Clinton not led the creation of the school and set them on an incredible trajectory.

Would Evelyn and Yehua be developing a clothing line?

Would Doug be building a solar company?

Would Justin be performing surgery on athletes?

Would Sergei be giving TED talks about his drone company?

Would Kyle be hunting the Higgs boson?

Would Becky be developing new tools to help treat diseases?

Would Dan have been a leader at Google X?

Would I be an executive at Yelp?

Hillary Clinton's forgotten legacy on STEM is the affirmative reason anyone still uncertain should give her their vote. If you want to understand what Hillary Clinton can do for America, talk to a millennial from Arkansas who benefited from her visionary work. The seeds she planted more than 30 years ago continue to blossom today.

I'm confident in saying that, without ASMS and the other programs she created, I wouldn't have attended a competitive college or possessed the critical skills I've needed to succeed in my current position. As such, I feel I owe Hillary Clinton more than my vote.

I’m voting for Hillary Clinton on Tuesday partly out of gratitude for what she gave me: A chance to do something with myself beyond what was otherwise possible. But, more importantly, I’m voting for her because I know that in 30 years, Hillary will have enacted policies that will allow future generations of Americans to have opportunities like the one I was so fortunate to have had.

Luther Lowe is the vice president of public policy at Yelp and a proud alumnus of the Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences and the Arts. After joining the company in 2008 as an account executive, Lowe created the role of Manager of Business Outreach and built a department that educates small business owners about the importance of Yelp. Since 2011, he has led global public policy at the company, managing and directing the company’s global outreach to policymakers about the vital role Yelp plays in driving economic activity to local businesses while serving as a platform to empower and protect consumers. Previously, Lowe worked as a special assistant to retired four-star General Wesley Clark. Reach him @lutherlowe.

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