I’ve been in many conversations lately about supporting first generation college students. Inevitably, these conversations turn to ideas about “supporting” these students, from creating supports for addressing presumed academic deficits to building mentorship programs to help students navigate the many unwritten rules of success in college.   All are good.

Yet in all of these conversations, I’ve also be aware of the nagging realities of class on campus:

First, we are now witnessing a two tiered system of higher education in which wealthier students compete for admissions to a relatively small number of competitive elite colleges, while poor and working class students attend community colleges  and less competitive state schools.    No education can be complete without regular, sustained, and deliberate encounters with difference.   No education can be complete without daily reminders that others experience the world on much different terms that you do.

Second, the conversations almost always assume that first-generation students are fragile hot house flowers, ready to wilt at under the pressures of school.   There is almost no conversation about the multiple daily “micro” slights that remind first generation students that even after admission, they must earn their place in college in daily dances around money, status, and experiences from which one has been excluded. The thing that shut me up in college was not my lack of academic preparation; it was instead realizing in the first few weeks that so many of the other students had travelled, read things, eaten things, volunteered places that, until that point, were completely invisible to me.  I knew that at any turn, my ignorance would be apparent and I’d be judged for it, even while I was doing fine on the academic work.

But there is almost no conversation about the resilience that students can develop, about the things learned from becoming keen observers of the taken-for-granted social norms, of the righteous anger that can grow over economic injustice.

So this week, I read How Much Do You Pay for College  in the Chronicle, and was relieved to learn of student organizations that are fostering open and sometimes difficult conversations about class differences on campus.  For example:

Middlebury could have created a support group for working-class students, the type of program found on many other campuses. But Koplinka-Loehr intentionally wanted something different—an organization that promotes dialogue between working-class and wealthy students, that “makes the conversation a lot harder” but ultimately more meaningful, he explained.

I’m encouraged by this vision of moving conversations about first-generation students’ experiences out of “support groups” behind closed meeting room doors and into the open.   I’m encouraged by the idea that we might finally come to frame the conversations as being fundamentally about class and privilege and the many ways that students new to college have to fight for the right to stay — with their dignity intact.

Opportunity

November 17, 2008

Mike Rose has written a thought-provoking, post-election post on opportunity, the limitations of pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mentalities, and education.   He writes:

The creation of opportunity involves a good deal of thoughtful work on
the part of the provider, and, as well, demands significant effort on
the part of the recipient. The creating of social programs,
compensatory interventions, and the like are not, as some conservative
writers claim, a giveaway, a soft entry into the meritocracy. If done
well, the creation of opportunity in education (and this applies to
other domains as well) also requires great effort, even courage. What
that special program or compensatory intervention assures is that one’s
effort is not just sound and fury, but is directed and assisted toward
achievement.

and this:

…it does not diminish the importance of individual commitment and effort
to also acknowledge the tremendous role played in achievement by the
kind, distribution, and accessibility of institutions, programs, and
other resources. And these resources, as everybody knows, are not
equally available. Particularly now.

Working Hard

May 15, 2008

When talking with my students about constraints on the individual choices that families might make on behalf of their children, they inevitably talk of their grandparents and great parents “who came here with nothing” and worked hard and learned English so that they could “make it”. In the family stories as told by many of my students, this transition to economic security and cultural assimilation happened relatively quickly, and, except for the “hard work”, was pretty straightforward

It sometimes seems as if some of these students project their own relative comfort back several generations, even while they also claim a family legacy of “working hard to make it”. It would seem, at least in the versions of family history told in my classes, that immigrants of previous generations enjoyed cozy evenings gathered around the scratched and worn kitchen table, wearied, perhaps, by their day at the factory but profoundly grateful for all that their children were accomplishing at school.

I honestly do appreciate their questions about why, then, they see poor children struggling with English in their classrooms. They wonder why the children of these families haven’t worked harder to learn English, why the parents aren’t working enough to provide for their children, why these families “rely” on public services for things like health care when their ancestors valued taking responsibility for one’s own family, why school seems to not be a priority in some of these families.

And this opens the doors to all sorts of conversations. We trace family economic histories (though I’ve been thinking that I could do this much more formally), and talk about how, historically, it had commonly taken four generations from immigration to the first college graduate in a family.

We talk about the differences between coming with “nothing” in terms of savings or material possessions yet having a marketable skill, and coming with only the strength in one’s arms and back.

We talk as straightforwardly as I can press them about how those of us gathered in a university classroom are not representative of the rest of the population, and advise caution against the assumption that we are the norm while those kids in their second grade classroom are the aberration.

We talk about the Catholic schools during the waves of immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe (including the one attended by my father) that taught children in their home language, as families slowly transitioned into English while adamantly preserving ties to home.

We talk about the changing nature of immigration, about how people who arrived after weeks on a boat (and whose letters home would take as long to cross back) had fewer options for sustaining identification with their homeland than today’s immigrants who can text, call, skype, post and view photos and videos on the internet, and can (and do) live simultaneously in multiple worlds.

We talk about the immense differences between immigration that was, for all intents and purposes, permanent, when travel and politics and religion made clear to everyone that leaving was for good, and immigration motivated primarily by the search for jobs.

And we talk about economic times that have and have not enabled people to get beyond the first steps on steep ladders, about jobs and wages and upturns and downturns and the declining earning power of people who do manual labor.

The inability to make a decent living, let alone to get ahead, in spite of working hard is powerfully illustrated in Peter Goodman’s recent NYT article on Latinos being particularly hard hit by the current downturn in the economy. He writes:

The boom in American housing generated millions of new jobs for those willing to engage in physically demanding tasks, from factory work churning out floorboards, carpeting and upholstery, to landscaping, roofing and janitorial services. Latinos occupied widening swaths of these trades and filled large numbers of relatively high-paying construction jobs.

As a great influx of Latino immigrants spread beyond the initial entryways of the Southwest into smaller cities and towns across the South and the Midwest, many found employment doing much of the unpleasant work shunned by those with better prospects.

But now significant portions of this work are disappearing. What were once the fastest-growing areas of the nation, including states with expanding Hispanic populations like Florida, California, Georgia and Nevada, are often bearing the brunt of the pain.

The belief that we can control our economic circumstances through hard work is difficult to shake, but at least with analysis like this, we can delve deeper in our conversations about “them” and “us” as we move into more nuanced discussion about how our families found their own way in very different economic times.

And hopefully, we can also then move beyond talk of education being mainly about preparing people for jobs to also talk about how education can be about preparing a citizenry who can participate in creating public policies other than those that simply leave people to fend for themselves, floundering, in spite of working very hard all of their lives.

It’s very hard work for teachers to rethink so much of what they’ve learned about the place of education in the lives of American families, and to become advocates for those kids in their classrooms, especially in the face of so much public discourse that simply takes the easy route of blaming teachers for persistently uneven playing fields.

Looking Back

April 3, 2008

March.

I took a deep breath, clutched my to-do list, and dove in. There was no way that I could get through it all.

And then there were the troubled students, and troubled family, and the tyranny of the mundane, day after day.

And then AERA.

And then back home to start a new quarter.

I got through my first class, came home, and crashed.

Coughing loud enough to wake the neighbors, shivering under piles of blankets. Sicker than I’ve been in years.

So between naps, I’ve been reading some fiction, and came upon this from Kate Atkinson’s One Good Turn:

In 1995, he remembered the year, remembered the moment, he had been at home in Cambridge, when his wife was still his wife, not an ex, and she was hugely pregnant with Marlee (Jackson imagined their baby tightly packed like the heart of a cabbage inside his wife), and Jackson was washing up after dinner (when he still called it “tea” before his language was buffed into something more middle-class and southern by his wife). They ate early at the end of her pregnancy, any later and she was too full to sleep, so while he washed the pots and listened to the Six O’Clock News on Radio 4, and somewhere in the middle of that night’s bulletin they announced the closure of the pit his father had worked in all his life. Jackson couldn’t remember why that pit had made the news when so many had closed by then with so little fuss, perhaps because it had been one of the largest coalfields in the area, perhaps because it was the last working mine in the region, but whatever, he stood with a soapy plate in his hand and listened to the newsreader, and without any warning the tears had started. He wasn’t even sure why — for everything that had gone, he supposed. For the path he hadn’t taken, for a world he’d never lived in. “Why are you crying” Josie asked, lumbering into the kitchen, she could hardly get through the door by that stage. That was when she cared about everything he experienced. “Fucking Thatcher,” he said, shrugging it off in a masculine way, making it political, not personal, although in this case there was no difference.

And then they got a baby and a dishwasher, and Jackson continued on and didn’t think again for a long time about the path he hadn’t chosen, a way of life that never had been, yet that didn’t stop him from aching for it in some confused place in his soul.

Atkinson, Kate. (2006). One Good Turn. New York: Back Bay Books/Little Brown and Company. p. 248.

The Economic Mobility Project of the Pew Charitable Trust released it’s latest report last week, this one focussed on the dispersement of federal spending for programs designed to support economic mobility. They write:

Education, work experience and saving enhance the opportunity for upward economic mobility. To this end, many federal investments aim to enhance economic mobility. But exactly how much does the federal government encourage economic mobility? What form does the encouragement take? And who benefits from these efforts?

Alas, they conclude, 2/3 of federal spending to support mobility goes to middle and high income households, while many federal programs targeting low income families sometimes actively discourage mobility.

Looking at ten categories of supports, from home ownership to child well-being programs, the report concludes the beneficiaries of these federal programs are those in the upper two income quintiles, “people who already possess substantial command of financial and human capital”.

This non-partisan project is publishing an excellent series of reports of economic mobility in the U.S., and as in this most recently released report, the news is generally not good.

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