As turmoil has spilled over international borders in response to the affrontive public stance and incendiary decisions of the 45th U.S. President’s Administration during the past two weeks, the public debate remains couched in the language of “us” and “them.” If the shocking and unexpected ascension of a businessman and flippant television personality to one of the most powerful global leadership positions has illuminated nothing else, it should be the grave dangers of divisive rhetoric and partisan posturing. As my colleague has already covered this topic most eloquently, I’ll skip the political advice in favor of a less erudite conclusion: the 2016 U.S. election unveiled a starkly divided America, one in which the downtrodden have grown restless in the yoke of gentrification, and are flexing their collective discontent. As the gap in wealth has become a yawning chasm over recent decades, another gap— a dark wilderness where I myself have wandered— has exaggerated the class divide: the gap in education.
Shrill voices on the liberal spectrum have callously pointed to the notable difference in education levels among supporters and dissenters of the newly minted administration. What they are pointing to is actually a much older and more hideous spectre of America Past— an America of segregation and class divides and disillusioned dreams of equality. It is a spectre that still haunts blue-collar households across the country, and a legacy that most developed nations would be ashamed of.
This is not to say that the point of educating people is to change their political position. But education does offer an invaluable exposure to other worldviews, in light of which we can critically examine the merits and flaws of our own persuasions. It also teaches us how to think analytically and rationally about every decision we encounter in life, which cannot help but make us more savvy consumers of partisan drivel and biased news, and more prepared voters. Not least, higher education opens doors to employment opportunities and advancement in an increasingly competitive, skill-driven world. It offers a path to self-determination, the freedom most coveted by those struggling to escape an environment of poverty and social disadvantage. The entire country benefits when the education gap, and with it, the gross disparity of income, begins to narrow— when, in essence, more Americans share a common American Dream.
Yet while access to education has, in principle, become increasingly open over the past half a century, the no-man’s-land between the working and business classes remains, reflective of a deep ideological and logistical divide that partisan rhetoric has done nothing to bridge. It’s a divide that far too few university admissions offices understand, and that even well-intentioned faculty are often ill-equipped to recognize or navigate in what should be a coordinated effort to retain underdog talent.
The good news? This is a tractable problem. For academics seething with disappointment, frustration or powerlessness, seethe no longer. Instead, hearken back to the 35th President’s advice, and “…ask what you can do for your country.” After all, we have an estimated 1439 days of POTUS-45 ahead of us, right? Let’s arrive at the election booths in 2020 a more unified America than we are today; a more equitable America than we are today; an America that values our common humanity more than we do today.
So coming from someone who has traversed that dark wilderness— beginning the journey as a timid community college student in search of vocational training who, through the unflagging support of faculty along the way, is now nine months into a PhD program— I’d like to share five practical ways that you can help a first-generation college student succeed. This is by no means an exhaustive orientation on the subject, but I hope that others who have struggled to climb the educational ladder from among the downtrodden will venture to amend this list and to contribute to a larger discussion on how we can begin to narrow the education gap as a society.
1. Know That We Will [Almost] Never Come to You
This is so often overlooked that it must be stated: you need to make yourself approachable. Whether the survival instinct is bred in our bones; whether we inbibe our parents’ will to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps as impressionable babes; or whether it is the painful self-awareness of our alien life experience in comparison to our peers, a first-generation college student will probably never self-identify. We’re doing everything we can to put on a brave face for the world. We often need a professor that we respect to shake us out of our self-imposed isolation.
Let us know that— whatever emotional or financial hardships and gnawing self-doubts we may be staring down to sit in your classroom— we are valued members of the academic community precisely because of the different life experiences we bring, and that we are not alone. Make it known that you recognize that there are many students struggling to obtain an education across the country who have not been set up well for the task by their formative years or family environment, and that the effort is one you respect and commend. Let us know that you want to help in whatever way you can.
This goes for university recruitment staff as well. When we’re applying for undergraduate admissions, we probably don’t even know that being a “first-generation college student” or from a “socially disadvantaged background” is a thing. We’re not going to be quick to spill our story about how hard life has been all over our statements either, because, quite frankly, we might be a little embarrassed about it. Even when I started applying for graduate programs, I was surprised at how little recognition there seemed to be of the unique hurdles that a student coming from a background like mine would face. We are poorly served by standardized admissions checklists that weight things like student leadership, extracurricular activities and volunteer service without realizing that we are often excluded from these pursuits by the constraints of working to offset the support we aren’t getting from home.
Out of four PhD programs I applied to in 2015-2016, only one application actually included check-boxes for being a first-generation student, or coming from a financially or socially disadvantaged background. The same school explicitly asked for statements that included details of how these challenges had shaped my educational career. The other programs either listed it as encouraged statement content, or didn’t mention it at all, leaving it up to me whether I wanted to sacrifice precious page space to discuss family history instead of having the same real estate to elaborate on my research interests as other applicants would.
The point? Give us a reason to view our background as valuable experience, and make a good-faith effort to meet us where we are.
2. Make Us Accountable for Our Capacity to Do Good
The first algebra teacher I ever had at community college cornered me in the hallway one day. She was a petite and quirky lady with a wry sense of humor and a draconian stance on full participation in class. She put sparkly stickers on the highest scoring exam booklet for each midterm, and I had two already. “So, what are you going to do after this?,” she asked. It was my first semester. I rambled something about taking some courses and going back to work. She frowned as if we had unfinished business. “You have a good mind,” she said, with a solemnity that took me aback. “You should do something with it.”
No one had ever told me that before. Those simple words lodged deeply in my memory because it was a charge— I was being entrusted with something precious: knowledge. It was never again just going to be about me, or about what my parents wanted: what I chose to do with my life might affect the course of other lives. In my darkest and weariest moments, that sense of responsibility still impels me to keep putting one foot in front of the other.
So challenge your students to think of their education as a privilege and a contribution to the global community. Hold them accountable to reach their full potential. Taking the time to let them know that you have a vested interest in their success, even if no one else does, can have more of an impact than you’ll ever know.
3. Be Sensitive to Family Stigmas and Partitioned Lives
I think it’s a common misconception that any poor family would be delighted to see their child getting an education; that we all spring from saintly mothers like Abraham Lincoln’s, who will spare themselves no hardship to see their child succeed. For many reasons, that’s a gross oversimplification of the tension that we may face when striking out into the uncharted territory of college. Blue-collar parents often spend their entire lives, day in and day out, without sick leave and without vacation, toiling to “put beans on the table.” That persistence is irrefutably admirable. The sole aspiration of these hard-working people may be to see their children employed, self-sufficient, and settling down with a family of their own.
Now imagine coming to that parent and informing them that you don’t want to work as hard as them, you don’t want to be as poor as them, and you want to own luxuries and take opportunities that they could never contemplate; in short, that you don’t want to be anything like them, and you’re going to quit working full time and incur debt to get there. While that may not be the vernacular the aspiring student employs, it’s nonetheless the slap on the face that the parent feels. The sheer disillusioning madness of this conversation, for both parties, can engender deep and longstanding resentments.
Professors, be thoughtful and tactful when discussing family life and emotional support with your students, and be aware that things at home might be pretty tough. Holiday gatherings are awkward; awards ceremonies and graduations are fraught with strain. Be mindful of the fact that the only way some of us can create the environment of peace and normalcy that we need to be productive students is to partition ourselves. There may be the self that goes home on weekends to help around the farm and is careful not to reference school life, and the self that engages in classroom discussions, toils over every detail of the homework, or lingers in your office after office hours, just to talk. Mom and Dad will always be Mom and Dad, and there is some comfort in that. But sometimes, we need somebody outside our family to nurture our aspirations or applaud our small victories.
4. Be Mindful of Financial Realities and Offer Hope
Whether it’s highly prestigious graduate funding, volunteer field assistantships in exotic locales, costly international training programs or unpaid internships with a top-shelf organization, most of us have long since come to terms with the fact that some really cool opportunities are simply out of our reach. And that can get very discouraging. This may be because we have to support ourselves today, or because we haven’t racked up enough extracurricular accolades on our CVs to compete successfully since we have spent a large portion of our time outside of class working in past. There is no family-funded security net, and getting through school is generally a hand-to-mouth endeavor, with sleep deprivation included at no additional charge. Golden opportunities will go to the candidates with the most achievements, because it is understandably difficult to measure how far each of us has come from our starting point, and much easier to stack us up next to our peers in a matrix.
There are nonetheless many ways that faculty and staff can help disadvantaged students to gain invaluable experience while in school without doubling down on financial stress. Introduce your undergraduate classes to the NSF-funded REU program, and consider hosting a short workshop on application preparation as the project announcements start coming out each winter and spring. Lead your classes to the primary online job boards in your field, and show them how to sign up for daily digests. Tap into your own network to find opportunities for students to work as paid interns or research assistants with professionals that you know, and help to facilitate recruitment. If you aren’t already, step outside the focus on meaty research funding for a day, and take the time to seek out a few small grants that will allow you to hire undergraduate students to support your own work in a meaningful capacity.
This bleakly practical diatribe is not to say that announcing volunteer field assistantships in exotic locales or international training programs can’t be inspiring, but if you really want to ground your support for disadvantaged students in actions, take the time to announce some scholarship opportunities or small grants for research that could help us pay our way to participate too. Keep your finger on the pulse of new or existing opportunities for students that would allow us to travel, to do exchange programs, and to gain unique experience that will set us apart in the workforce, while being mindful of our very real financial fences. Set calendar reminders to bring up the Fulbright programs, the Marshall Scholarship, and the many other programs that a student with their shoulder to the wheel would be unlikely to stumble on until they may have missed the opportunity. Our dreams aren’t any different than any other student, but our obstacles to success are.
5. Remember Why You Teach
In closing, the late Julian Simon may have been one of the most influential figures in my educational journey to a PhD program. In his assault on the Malthusian worldview, he posited that as global human population growth occurs, individuals will continue to identify, innovate solutions to, and overcome challenges associated with a growing population inhabiting a bounded earth. Further, he argued that we never can know from whence the genius to address these challenges will arise… and that, that idea became a searing, living flame that infected my thoughts like white phosphorus.
That is the optimism that every teacher should approach every student with, every day. That is the reason we should endeavor to bridge the divide, to support the downtrodden in reaching for self-determination through education. Because it will enrich their lives. Because it will increase our national unity around a shared vision for a more equitable future. And because we never know what they will go on to achieve for the world.