Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Have Some Have-Nots: Or, The Rise Of The Privileged Poor

So, yeah, I think I just came to the realization that I did all 4 years of my undergrad college life completely and utterly WRONG!!!

After reading this New York Times opinion piece on "the privileged poor" who benefit from going to elite high schools before entering college. Having read that piece, and seeing the research and statistics which fueled the author's opinions, I'm faced with the startling realization with what was wrong with my transition to the elite liberal arts college I attended. I'm upset at myself, mostly, as these conclusions shed light on a few troubling moments during my 4 years spent going to school in Northern Vermont. Moments with which I wish I had conducted myself better, and for which I'm also ashamed of my behavior. But in my defense, this article also shows that perhaps I was not entirely to blame.

Seriously, you should go read it. Here's an excerpt:

"My research shows that, on average, half of the lower-income black undergraduates at elite colleges today come from private high schools like Andover and Dalton. As early as middle school (and sometimes sooner), students participate in programs like Prep for Prep and A Better Chance. These programs remove lower-income students from typically distressed public schools and place them in predominantly white, resource-rich, affluent private schools. Elite colleges effectively hedge their bets: They recruit those already familiar with the social and cultural norms that pervade their own campuses.
"As a sociologist, I study this new diversity at elite colleges. I call lower-income undergraduates who graduated from private high schools the privileged poor. Although they receive excellent educations, my research shows that their ability to navigate the informal social rules that govern elite college life is what really gives them advantages relative to their lower-income peers who did not attend elite high schools, those whom I call the doubly disadvantaged.Although also academically gifted and driven, they enter college with less exposure to the unsaid expectations of elite academic settings."

Basically, the author comes to the conclusion that, although many universities across the country have gone to great lengths to diversify their student bodies since the late 1990s when I graduated college, that in effect they "cheated" by selecting many of their so-called "minority" students from already top-tiered, or elite, private high schools. Such students, while coming from severely disadvantaged backgrounds and upbringings compared to their more affluent classmates, nonetheless benefited from having spent one to four years prior to college immersed in a rigorous, challenging, and ultimately enriching academic regimen alongside their wealthier peers. And so, when it came to attend college, these "privileged poor" students were in effect already well trained and prepared for the culture of university life. That's the whole point of "prep schools" after all; to prepare students for college.

Elite high schools like this in the Bronx are now accepting
more black and Hispanic students into their campuses.

And then there's me, part of what the author calls the "doubly disadvantaged" crowd. All my life I was considered exceptionally gifted academically, but somehow or another always managed to escape being placed in an elite pre-university school. I was a minority, raised and living in poverty--in one of the most dangerous and economically deprived districts in the country--but whom also, despite earning excellent grades, always remained in public schooling straight on up until senior year of high school. I actually know why this happened, but I won't get into it now. Suffice to say that I did very well in public school, but was always bored by the material. I never truly felt challenged.

However, something more sinister was at play behind the scenes than mere boredom. Unbekownst to me, you see, I was missing out on key expectations required of me. To wit: I was not receiving the proper training to navigate through the complex social and academic circles of higher education. Skills you must have once you leave public schooling behind.

In public school, everything was handed to me. Things were "dumbed down," if you will. We were told what to do, and how to do it. Tests were merely regurgitating, in precisely the manner you were previously shown, every little minutiae of data taken from our teachers and text books on any given subject. More importantly, at least for me, there was always this barrier I felt between the students and the faculty. We never saw them outside of the classroom. When the bell rang, they all but vanished into smoke--or to the teacher's lounge, to be less dramatic, or wherever it is that the teachers in my high school went. And even those who were ostensibly available, most of us students did not feel welcomed to go up to them after class and ask for help. In my case, I didn't even know I should ask for help. The impression was that so long as you simply memorized everything you were given in class and applied it directly to any test, you would succeed.

Charter schools like this one in Brooklyn offer sometimes the
only alternative to the horrid public school system
in NYC for disadvantaged youth.

And I did. That's exactly how I aced through my entire four years of high school. By some pretty nifty feats of rote memorization, a skill I was naturally gifted with.

But then came college, and everything changed. Due to my grades and test scores--and thanks in no small part to the fact that I was a much sought-after minority element for universities to tout--I received a full ride to a handful of prestigious universities. Nothing on par with the Ivy Leagues, mind you. I wasn't that industrious, after all. But very decent schools with well-known reputations. And best of all, the school on the very top of my list wanted me! I was high on myself around the time when school acceptance packages were coming through the mail like clockwork, addressed to me. My time had come!

But, of course, the reality of college quickly brought me down to size. Looking back at it now, I can't believe how young and unprepared I was. I took so many things for granted in high school, that when I started to screw up royally in my college pre-med courses, I had no idea where to turn. I honestly retreated within myself, blaming my own shortcomings for why I couldn't adapt to the work. And the worst I did in these courses, the more withdrawn I became. My academic advisor constantly tried to make me aware of his availability, but I refused his offers of help as a sign of weakness. I thought I should be able to handle my own affairs on just that -- on my own! It never once occurred to me that, unlike in high school, college professors and advisors welcomed students to seek out their help and advice.

Many minority students feel lost and underrepresented at
top-tier college campuses.

And this is the first tier of my shame. For rather than see the outstretched hands of support from faculty members as welcoming, my pride made me see it all as an insult to my intelligence. I mistrusted adults in the position to offer me the academic guidance I needed. I shunned them! And as a result, my grades continued to suffer and I ended up dropping out of pre med. I would eventually switch to a different course of study at the college (after coming very close to flunking out), and was then able to flourish. It took a great paradigm shift on my way of thinking about my potential employment future for it to happen, but it did. And I was a better student for it.

But unfortunately, it did nothing to address the original problem. And worse yet, it was a problem I didn't even know I had. Asking for help. I never did get the hang of it. And it causes me no end of embarrassment to this day when I look back at some of the pretty boneheaded mistakes I made with my academics during those four years.

For one:

Around once every semester I would have to meet up, in a private office, with representatives from the various scholarship funds and trusts paying my way through college. As someone living off the pension of his grandmother, I had to rely on almost total financial aid support just to be able to attend the elite private university I had chosen. At that time, the price tag for a year's tuition and board was roughly $29,000 per year! It has since nearly doubled at the same institution, by the way. Ouch!

So, part of the stipulations of my financial aid package was to meet up with these representatives so that they could assess me and evaluate how I was doing. But I didn't take it as such. Without having any prior reference as to what such arrangements were like, I thought I was being accused of not deserving the aid I was receiving. And so I went into these meetings extremely closed off and mistrusting. I gave straight-forward, perfunctory answers to direct inquiries only. I made almost no small talk, and rarely even made eye contact. I must have been deemed autistic or severely socially stunted by those conducting the interviews, I must assume. Little did I know that I should have been using these moments to build relationships out there in the working world. To make contacts, set up internships, etc. Instead, I must have come across as an ungrateful little snit!

Ugh! I hate myself for being so naive back then.

Another embarrassing example, perhaps even more so than the one I've just outlined:

Is when it came time to write my senior thesis paper. I had a very good thesis advisor--a professor I knew very well and liked a lot--and yet I almost never went to see him to discuss my progress. Yes, that's right! In the three or four months it took me to research, outline, and ultimately write my 100-page thesis, I probably saw my advisor a total of 3 times! To be fair, he did seem rather concerned, and rightly so. But as I kept assuring him that I didn't need his help, and because I had already previously demonstrated a certain high level of writing skill in his classes, he chose to take my word for it. Which would explain the look of alarm on his face, then, upon calling me into his office to tell me the grade that had been reached by the board on the thesis. He said: "I know this isn't the grade you were expecting," and he seemed so worried that I would be upset.

And yet, I was ecstatic! All I cared about at that point was getting a passing grade on it and being able to graduate. It never occurred to me that the look on my advisor's face was there because he feared he had not done right by me. He thought he had failed me. Me!!!

It took me many, many years before I figured this out. And for that I am ashamed. In my entire 4 years at that college, I never did learn how to ask for help. I never learned how to recognize and appreciate the resources and opportunities I had available to me. When faced with the often bizarre and strange system of higher education, instead of seeking clarification I simply withdrew within myself and tried to "tough it out." Toughing it out, you see, was a skill you needed to learn early on in the streets of the South Bronx. You needed it to survive living on welfare, and dealing with tragic deaths and the loss of your parents. To dealing with abject poverty, disease, and drug abuse all around you. You learned to keep you nose down, your mouth shut, and to focus only on making it through to the next day.

All the survival skills you DID NOT need at college.

But once there, that behavior was my fallback. I wanted no fuss, no muss. I just wanted to do my duty and get the hell out of there in 4 years with a piece of paper in my hands as proof that I had made it. And all this because public school had never showed the faith in me to believe I would even go so far as college, and therefore did not care to structure an education around the preparation for such a career.

I thought this was the end-goal. Nothing prepared me for
what was to come next.

The public school system of the inner city is designed to do a civic duty in show only. It says: There, you're in high school, idiots. Now go ahead and cut class, get pregnant, and drop out of school like we know you will! Go ahead and prepare for incarceration, and become useful members of the industrialized prison labor force complex. This is all that you're good for. And if you do ... if you do somehow manage to go to college, prepare to be unprepared, and screw that up as well. We double dare you. We want you to fail! Which is why some days I believe I only made it to where I am by sheer, dumb luck. Or maybe by stubbornness; an inability to allow myself to fail.

But mostly, I know, I made it because I know that despite my anti-social ways, there were always people along the way in a position to help me out, and to do so. They probably gave me too much credit, I think, and which is why most of them accepted my excuses and allowed me to keep mostly to myself those 4 years. But they tried. And yes, I know exactly who they are in this case. And I appreciate all that they tried to do for me.

But, yeah, I was never the privileged poor. I was the "doubly disadvantaged," as the article states. And while colleges may wish to pat themselves on the back for the great strides made in welcoming more and more disadvantaged youths like myself, more work needs to be done to actually acclimate those students from poor backgrounds to the weird and overwhelming strangeness of college life.

Take it from me: it's not always an issue that's simple to observe, nor elucidate.

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