"Money Doesn't Have to be an Obstacle"
We are sharing reflections on and excerpts from Center for Artistry and Scholarship’s Executive Director Linda Nathan’s new book, When Grit Isn’t Enough, published October 2017 by Beacon Press. In the book, Linda investigates assumptions that inform our ideas about education today, revealing how these beliefs mask systemic inequity. Drawing from her experiences as the founding headmaster of Boston Arts Academy (BAA) and more than 80 interviews with alumni that she conducted after she stepped down, When Grit Isn't Enough argues that it's time for policy-makers and educators to face these uncomfortable issues. It also explores how we need room for creativity and student-centered teaching and learning to better serve all students, increase college retention rates, and develop alternatives to college that do not disadvantage students on the basis of race or income.
While reading the first chapter in When Grit Isn’t Enough, I was reminded of my experience working in higher education with a population of first-generation college goers. Here’s what Linda writes in Chapter One, “Money Doesn’t Have to Be an Obstacle”:
Educators must help young people dream big, but we have to confront the fact that the dreams of the economic have-nots are not just deferred but can be obliterated for lack of access to economic capital. Furthermore, we need to better understand the fragility that poverty creates. In the stories I recount in this chapter, some students made avoidable errors that derailed their college plans. However, if these students had come from upper-middle or even middle-class households, where conversations about college are constant and where a safety net protects them from falling too hard after a misstep, I don’t believe these errors would have had such a devastating effect. It is easy to point fingers and blame the individual student: how could he/she have made that mistake? My point here is not to blame the individual but rather to examine the webs of inequity that can entrap young people, especially those living in poverty. Furthermore, we have so idealized individual stories of success that they have achieved folklore status for young people. Think about the ways in which we celebrate pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps celebrities like Jennifer Lopez or Jay Z. These performers are household names among young people, and role models for those growing up in impoverished neighborhoods. While I am enormously proud of BAA success stories like Diane Guerrero, they too obscure how the systemic issues of poverty and inequality can disable college access.
I’ve heard from many of my alumni who’ve been on the receiving end of disparaging comments from financial aid administrators. Navigating the complexities of the college aid system is a shared experience among them. And yet, sadly, responses to their difficulties are similar. Colleagues often say, “How could she have been so unaware?” These comments are often made by people who are not the first in their family to graduate from high school. Of course we want young people to take responsibility for both taking out and then repaying loans. We understand that loans are individually given, but when we approach the entire subject of student debt as solely an individual problem, it prevents us from grappling with larger systemic issues about college access and completion. It’s easier to lay blame than to question why we have burdened young people, already burdened by poverty or immigration status, to find their way, largely without support, through the complex system of college aid.
The college I worked at was an extended education program that was part of a much larger university. The school was designed to provide students from community colleges and other similar institutions the opportunity to attend a large, competitive university without the steep financial strains and rigorous admissions process. While these students were strong academically, by the larger university standards, their test scores and grades would not have been competitive enough for acceptance.
My office provided academic counseling, but only a select few used these services. We offered an orientation session each semester, but due to families and work schedules, many new admittances were not able to attend. Despite these efforts and others, we would run into the same problems each semester: students not understanding the process for graduating, dropping a class, or receiving financial aid. I was constantly frustrated, thinking, “How could you not know you need to pay for this class?” or “How were you not paying attention to the credits to you need to graduate?”
I know now that I was asking these questions because I was approaching this situation from my own experiences. My family went to college; my parents are in the educational system. I had their support and their experience to help guide me on my college journey. When I was working at this university, I should have realized that most of the people in the world are not as fortunate as I am. They come from different backgrounds, much like the backgrounds of the students Linda describes in her book. My students may have been older, and had attended other universities before, but they were still first-generation college students, many of them immigrants from other countries.
I should have pushed to create more robust programming, as Linda calls for in chapter one, to help these students succeed. Instead of getting frustrated at these students for not doing something they “should have” done, or not embracing the various opportunities we were offering, I should have examined why these issues kept arising. I should have reevaluated my own actions, and how the current programming was perhaps setting students up for repeated failures. I am sure my experience is similar to many other college offices in America. I’m reminded of the old phrase, “Never judge a person until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.” If we were all able to take a step outside ourselves and understand the diverse backgrounds and experiences each of us have, we would be more equipped to work with and help one another.
Rachel is the Community Liaison for the Conservatory Lab Charter School Foundation, and a theatre artist.