When I applied to college in the fall of my senior year of high school in 1994, things were very different than they are today. I was completing my applications during discussions around Proposition 187, wondering how this would affect my immediate family, being immigrants from Nicaragua and Panama. The other end of my high school career saw a verdict and our own demonstrations against police brutality. Within those four years, in my large suburban Bay Area high school, we saw our own versions of the conversations happening around the state: “It’s a Black Thang, You Wouldn’t Understand” published in the school newspaper; the gang murder of a parent at the exact same time as our band performance just fifty feet away; and our first AIDS Awareness Week and the request for a health center, the first of its kind on a high school campus. While my experience may seem similar to students today having to understand Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, mass deportations, and Proposition 8, when I sat down to apply to college, I knew something very different than what students know today: I knew I was going to college and I knew that I would have a fruitful career afterwards. This is how I knew: my high school prepared me both academically and socially.

I was always a good student mostly because I like to read and I could spit back information quickly. But I was extremely shy; if I needed help, I was too embarrassed to ask, not wanting anyone to know I could possibly not be as smart as they thought I was. In my African American History course, we took a quiz that everyone failed but me. As the teacher lectured the class on their lack of responsibility to their studies, I sat with a small smirk on my face, as I decided that this lecture was not relevant to me. Ms. Allen stopped in the middle of her lecture and stared directly at me.

“Are you thinking this doesn’t apply to you, Vielka? Do you think the grade you earned really demonstrates what you are capable of? How much does it really mean if everyone around you failed? Did you study with your classmates? Did you do anything to help anyone other than yourself?”

With that I learned something that led me to my career in education today: the dilemma of my shyness has little to do with me and what I am missing but what I am not allowing other people to learn through me.

The problem with education today is that young people are not learning these lessons in a time when it is perhaps more critical to learn them, at least compared to when I was in school. Competition to get into colleges whose rankings are based in part on the number of students they reject, is fierce. When I applied to college, I applied to one and by the end of November, I received my acceptance letter and a decent financial aid package. I graduated in four years with my credential and preparation for graduate school, if I so chose. Today, I advise students to apply to anywhere between fifteen and twenty schools. There are “reach” schools and “safety” schools; schools that are known to fund students; schools that one has to be creative in how one markets oneself; schools that one should not consider without a specific GPA and SAT score; schools that value teaching, character-building, or a name; schools with a five- or six-year graduation plan; and schools that one attends with the intent to attend another.

So while the climate seems similar, there is one stark difference: the prospect of getting out and returning to make some change has severely diminished. And for the students who the possibility of college is a little more real, they are missing the character lessons that will help guide them through to the completion of their degree, in favor of purely academic ones that will only get them as far as enrollment. While we work towards changing the landscape of degree-giving, I’ll put some of the onus on students today, experiencing some success in school amongst verdicts, and DREAM acts, and unemployment rates in the form of the questions Ms. Allen posed to me:

Do you think your current success is really indicative of what you can be doing? How successful are you if the achievement gap still exists? What are you going to do to help someone other than yourself?