I do tend to read and re-read multiple books at a time. Some of these are for lesson planning, consultant planning, or even fun. This has a lot to do with why I start most sentences with “I just read…” Get to reading, folks!
Social Justice College Counseling Part 2: The Other 2%
This is the second piece in a series I am calling Social Justice College Counseling, things to think about in terms of my philosophy when I am counseling students and families about college. The first in the series talked about finances and making sure students (1) graduate from college and (2) when they do, are free to make decisions that have little to do with paying back an enormous debt.
With that said, there is something else that is critical to consider when advising students of color, undocumented, first generation, migrant, and low-income students and girls about where they should attend school and this something is not one I hear most college counselors talk about.
When I was in graduate school at UCLA, I was also a researcher for an organization called the College Access Project for African Americans. I looked at enrollment data for African Americans and Latinos in the UC- and CSU-systems before and after Proposition 209 prohibited race-based affirmative action in California. It seemed to me that the institutions used the law to accept even fewer students of color than they already were so universities such as UCLA and Berkeley went from about 7% to 3% African Americans enrolled. Coupled with a state that was and is broke, a Black student who gained admissions to UCLA, for example, with little funding was likely getting into Yale with full funding so off they went to Yale, of course. Long story short, it was and is hard to find certain groups of students on certain campuses.
Back to being at UCLA. In one of those years, UCLA enrolled six African American non-athlete males. Six. I was a TA that following year when an African American male student approached me during a final exam study session and said, “sis, I’m one of the six and I really need your help.” That has stuck with me in the years to follow and now I think about my son being in that same situation one day.
When the Supreme Court ruled in favor of affirmative action in Bakke v. UC Regents in 1976, one of the arguments was that we need students of color in our classrooms in order to provide some context or a differing opinion on a given topic. Some campuses have come to require a course in race as part of the general education requirements on that campus, such as Berkeley’s American Cultures requirement. As a graduate student at Berkeley, I have been a graduate student instructor for a few of those courses. The classes are super important and critical for students to understand issues of identity or as part of what we are now calling 21st Century Skills.
So Bakke is important in terms of content even without affirmative action and the American Cultures courses are spectacular, but here is my issue with both: they are incidents of mainstream society looking to what they can receive from students of color, not what they can give students of color. That student who approached me at UCLA? He was struggling. But when that course on race came up, suddenly he was everybody’s friend and the sole authority in the classroom. When you ask universities about the lack of diverse enrollment, they are quick to point their fingers at K-12 education and K-12 educators are quick to point their fingers at budgets or restrictive admissions practices at universities. The problem is always someone else’s fault and in the meantime it doesn’t get solved. Meanwhile, as college counselors and teachers, we continue to prepare students to attend universities that believe it isn’t their fault that other diverse students are not attending that university. And they continue to do things in the exact same way…something I hope to change very soon.
I realize this sounds real chip-on-the-shoulder like but the basic point that I am making is that when you have qualified and motivated students of color, the university has to give something back. Some of those things are embedded. For example for Black students, Berkeley Black undergrads can choose to live in a dorm with other Black students, the African American Studies Department at Berkeley provides such a community and safe place for Black students, unlike any I have ever seen on any other campus, and the Black Recruitment and Retention Center provides amazing peer support. None of it is perfect, but it’s there.
I briefly stated earlier that I began recently working with girls for many reasons and I’ll go into them another time. Thinking about the above as well, I do think about supports that universities put in place for girls. I was talking to a colleague a few years ago about the number of sexual assaults on college campuses and he said that for his daughter, he knew it was inevitable so he was preparing her for how she should respond. I thought back to my undergraduate years and the handbook all the girls received about where the safe places were, how to call for an escort from the library to the dorms, and how all of the dorms had security guards at night. I remembered back to all of the college tours I have taken with families and all of the times those same safe places were pointed out. And I realized in talking to that colleague or looking back at all the tours, I never once heard how they were going to train or provide discussions on power for the boys. My colleague also had a son; he never talked about having a discussion with his son about power, appropriate relationships, or how to guide his friends to make good decisions. The onus was on the victim and tools to be less victim-like.
Some things are reactive. While one can create support systems, universities have to be malleable as humans change and therefore their indiscretions change.
This brings me to the incident at Oklahoma University and the very unfortunate reality that incidents of racist and sexist parties or other events happen on college campuses all the time. All. The. Time. And this absolutely has to stop. Universities have to be safe places for everyone to learn about self. So when these incidents occur, and I think of the families I work with, I first take note of the campus and then the response: how quickly does that apology come; who makes the apology; what are they apologizing for; and what systemic things are put in place to ensure future incidents do not occur. Would I advise a female student to attend a university that took a year to bring charges against alleged rapists? Or one where a fraternity consistently holds “gangster and hoes” and “undocumented” parties without even an apology from the university? It is not likely and hopefully other counselors do the same.
Remember that I am not about victim-blaming so while I do mentor students of color, undocumented, migrant, low-income, first generation students and girls to have the soft skills necessary to be successful in these environments since the other reality is being a super minority will be their reality for a long time to come, when I work with students and families in majority cultures, I discuss privilege and power and how they can dismantle those systems. I know other college counselors encourage students to search for that ancestor of color and write a personal statement about that discovery or to fudge numbers on the FAFSA to seem needy. If that works or not is one thing, but what is the learning for that student in how they understand her or his privilege? It seems that some are ready to have diverse students on campus for when their student has a question about Ferguson for their term paper or is playing ball, but not willing to hear the upset from that same student when a noose is hanging in their dorm room or a fraternity is chanting about a noose on a bus.
The larger point I am making here is that college counseling, similar to how we approach other aspects of education as social justice teachers, is yet another way to dismantle institutional racism, sexism, and classism from both ends.
Most every time that I have done a teacher training I have used “Mascot,” the second chapter in the Autobiography of Malcolm X, if not explicitly, at least by inspiration. In the chapter Mr. Ostrowski tells elementary school Malcolm that he should not aspire so high as to be a lawyer, but rather he should be something more “realistic” for a Negro, such as a carpenter. Despite Malcolm having high grades, he is immediately rejected and credits that incident as changing his motivation in life from successfully integrated to a life of crime.
With regards to teaching and education, the link about the impact of Malcolm’s teacher’s words is obvious. We know teachers make positive and negative impacts in our lives all the time. Ms. Tung told me she knew I could do better in the fifth grade and Ms. Gaines echoed that sentiment in the eighth. My third grade teacher told me that I was awarded The Gift of Blackness Award, because “despite my color, I still played with the other children.” My mom never ran track but trust she broke some land-speed record getting up to the school that day. The point is, regardless of their intentions, teachers carry major weight.
With that said, that is not why I use that chapter. I use it to discuss the messaging that we provide students under the guise of teacher altruism: we are teachers so we supposedly know best about everything, right? But I don’t think it is about the occasional rogue know-it-all teacher.
Somewhere along the way, schools started making decisions about who deserves their efforts.
Starting with Mr. Ostrowski may have been an error because we can all look at ourselves and our practice and immediately say that we are not that person. But how often have we put less than our best effort in a lesson because we assumed the students just wouldn’t get it anyway? How often have we graded some papers faster than others because we already had a grade in mind for that student? How often have we made excuses about all the issues that student has regarding their own learning rather than those regarding our own teaching? How often have we rejected feedback for fear it would expose more about our own biases and pedagogy than we are willing to admit?
Most every school that I have worked in has a mission statement with wording along the lines of creating learners who participate in a democratic society. Every. Single. One. Yet the same school will say that we are not preparing students for college because, in some iteration—not all students are college-bound. Why not? Why does the school get to make that determination? And more importantly, shouldn’t we prepare students for the stars, open more doors, and allow them to make choices based on the options they have available rather than the ones we didn’t make available?
I will admit that I watched “Mona Lisa Smile.” And worse, I was taken by a line towards the end when Kirsten Dunst’s character graduates from college and says now she chooses to be a homemaker. It was so different from the things I’ve heard high school graduating seniors say in my teaching career:
-I don’t even know how to write an essay. How would I go to any college?
-I don’t have money to go to college anyway so what’s the point?
-Is someone going to tell me when I’m supposed to apply to college?
I was shocked. In their entire time, hadn’t anyone described the process or put in some effort to teach them college-readiness skills?
I was troubled a few weeks back when I heard a report on NPR about high school students opting to go directly into vocational training rather than earning even a high school diploma. I was first disturbed by students making life-decisions at the age of 14. Worse than that were the reasons young people opted to get vocational training. One student said something to the effect of not liking to have to listen to someone for so long as an hour and getting easily distracted by her peers. She chose to learn to be a hairdresser and I was truly worried for her future clients with a stylist with self-professed focus issues. So I wondered, in her school career, when was she Mr. Ostrowski-ed?
I thought how different it would be if on graduation day, she had a few college acceptance letters in her hand, some letters detailing her funding packages for these colleges, and then she decided her passion was hairdressing and she would like to pursue that through vocational school. I thought about how different her life would be if that was a choice she was making after finding her passion rather than by default. Her calling rather than her regret.
Ms. Tung really never talked to me much. I was a pretty shy student and never really heard much either way from teachers. When Ms. Tung died a few years later of lung cancer, I think I was sitting in some advanced mathematics course once again relying on a good memory rather than good study habits. I vowed to be a teacher then. I had been Ms. Tung-ed and hoped that I would eventually open enough doors and inspire some students who would one day talk about being Ms. Hoy-ed. And I commit to that promise each day.
Many of you may have already heard about the student from Oakland Tech high school who earned a 5.0 and admissions to top universities. The young person has the enviable dilemma of having to choose between a few Ivy Leagues and Stanford, among others. You may have also heard about the young person who managed to gain admissions to all eight of the Ivy League universities, something that happens close to never. Both young people attained a feat only few can imagine.
And both are Black males.
As families, students, and college counselors talk about what the two young men have managed to do, often the commentary returns to both being Black: “Well, they are African American so…?” (shrug, wink, nudge). I can’t speak to where the young man in New York went to school as well as I can to the young person from Oakland Tech, having worked in Oakland Unified for a number of years and public schools in the Bay Area for even longer, so I would like to take the opportunity here to discuss the “so…?” for this young man.
1) Oakland Tech is one of the better public Oakland high schools and if I am living in Oakland when my son is high-school aged, I would probably send him there. But when we are talking about rankings and test scores, violence and urban schools, access and college admissions, OT doesn’t quite get up there, especially compared to its private school counterpart down the street. There is a major difference between a school culture where everyone is saying “I will definitely go to college” versus one where *shrug* “I might do that one thing one day”.
2) OT doesn’t offer AP or honors courses until the 11th grade assuming a student is taking the standard course-load. That means that in order for this student to earn a 5.0, he would have had to take every AP and honors course available in the 11th grade, something that the College Board (the committee that creates the AP courses) doesn’t recommend since it is too rigorous and can’t be done to fidelity.
3) His 5.0 also means that he would have needed to take the prerequisites for those AP and honors courses. Some schools allow students to take AP and honors if they want to; OT isn’t one of those schools. Students have to qualify. I am a fan of either option but either way, it isn’t easy. I am a heritage Spanish speaker who took five years of Spanish in middle and high school before the AP Spanish Literature Exam and I still found that to be impossible. I believe there were about ten students in my high school who attempted it that year and that was all they could attempt. As a teacher of AP US History, I know that how difficult that curriculum is to master. And my students who are taking multiple AP and honors classes are slightly…unpleasant…with their lack of sleep and social skills. So for that young man to manage the course-load and not get jumped or kicked out of his house or be an all-around jackass is a feat in itself.
This young man managed to get the grades, complete the prerequisites, and create his own college-going culture, despite everything around him doing and saying something different. That is nothing short of amazing. And shame on anyone who thinks otherwise.