SOUTH BEND -- Addressing local students at Washington High School, a group of doctors and lawyers started a conversation more or less the same way: I didn't have a lot of money growing up.
Of five black professionals speaking to the students, three were products of South Bend public schools. One grew up in Gary. Several said they grew up in single-parent homes. One is a single-mother.
"I stood where a lot of you stand today," Tasha Reed-Outlaw, a local attorney who graduated from Washington High School, told the students.
In the school located around neighborhoods that have seen a spate of shootings in recent months, Reed Outlaw and four other local professionals addressed the students on how to succeed, often touching on financial and emotional challenges that stem from growing up in a low-income household.
Dr. Reuben Rutland, a trauma surgeon in Elkhart; Dr. Lauren Outlaw, a local ob/gyn; local attorney Richard Hayes; Dr. Avis Barker, a dentist with a practice in Granger; and Reed Outlaw spoke to a crowd of about 50 local students and parents Thursday evening.
"I knew I didn't want to live like this for the rest of my life," Rutland, who grew up in Gary, said.
To become a surgeon though, Rutland said he had to take it piece by piece. First just focusing intently on finding a way to go to college, and then later he considered how to get into and pay for medical school.
Telling the students how she paid for college, Dr. Lauren Outlaw, a South Bend native, said simply, "I studied."
She put herself through college and medical school with academic scholarships -- a task she said required razor-sharp focus during high school, sometimes necessitating the help of tutors when she fell behind.
In medical school, she took out loans to pay for the cost of living while she was in school, which she called the cheapest way to borrow money.
"Education will get you a long way," she said. "You are putting yourself in a position where you will make more money."
The panelists suggested that students seek out the guidance counselors at their high schools to ask about scholarships to apply for. Some colleges offer money for students who are the first in their family to attend a university, they said.
A student coming from a low-income background may have to work harder, and want it more, Dr. Outlaw said.
"It's so easy to continue the cycle of where you came from," she said.
Barker said at times in dental school, people would assume she was able to enroll because of affirmative action.
Even now, Outlaw encounters patients from her own community who assume she believes she is better than them, given her education.
"You're going to have to work harder," she told the students.
Present yourself well, she advised. Don't go to the doctor's office in slippers.
"It's important for you to walk out of the house looking like you will meet the president," Outlaw said, touching on another theme of the symposium: networking.
The panelists urged students to make connections with professionals in their community, financial aid officers at prospective colleges and others who can help them.
In the audience were students like Tia Thomas, a 16-year-old junior at Riley High School.
Her mom works in a factory. She hopes to be a nurse.
"I just want to be better in life," Thomas said.
Staff writer Madeline Buckley: