Windows and Mirrors - College Worthy - Florence Sprague - November 2022
Earlier this fall the radio program This American Life rebroadcast an episode from 2015, “Three Miles” (listen at https://www.thisamericanlife.org/550/three-miles or read the transcript at https://www.thisamericanlife.org/550/transcript). It is the story of several students whose schools were a mere three miles apart in New York City, but whose lives felt thousands of miles apart. A pair of friends
who taught at the two schools arranged to have a group of students from the public school serving predominantly low-income black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) students visit the private school serving predominantly white students from wealthy families. Some students were motivated by this experience and made connections, but others were freaked out by the blatant inequity of educational opportunities they viewed. The visiting students felt conspicuous, out of place, and undeserving. Some of them felt unbridled anger and resentment that they were not offered the same environment.
That inequity in itself is a tragedy. This story revealed that overcoming that inequity is immensely complicated and psychologically complex. Even the most capable students from the low-income school were often emotionally unprepared to feel that they fit in at college. That is an even greater, heartbreaking tragedy.
Some of the visiting students did later participate in programs that helped them attend college. The supports were seldom enough to bridge the gaps. Gaps that were economic. Gaps that were about knowing the unwritten rules about how a college functioned. Psychological gaps about belonging and fitting in. Too many gaps.
One program which is working to improve diverse access to higher education that was mentioned in this story is Posse (https://www.possefoundation.org/shaping-the-future). It has a rigorous entrance process, creates cohorts of students, offers pre-college guidance, and other services. But even this program was not enough to help some students overcome their internalized sense of unworthiness (sometimes called the imposter syndrome), their economic challenges, or other problems.
I have a friend who was a dean at an Ivy League university for many years and he was proud of their involvement with the Posse program as a way to increase accessibility of higher education for students from impoverished communities. But as the This American Life story tells us, crossing that crevasse is still so difficult, that many students, though brilliant, do not succeed.
This also brings to mind some anecdotes Claude Steele notes in Whistling Vivaldi, though from two different angles. He observed that the test performance of individual members of groups subject to certain stereotypes could be affected by the type of input they received shortly before a test. For example, girls might be stereotyped as not as good at math, but when given positive examples of women working in math before a test they would score highly. Or while BIPOC students might feel that they had to always work alone to prove that they deserved to be at college, white students, unbeknownst to their BIPOC classmates, more easily formed study groups or sought support during professorial office hours thereby improving their chances of success. The imposter syndrome has many tentacles.
Clearly, we need to start developing a student’s innate sense of self-worth at an early age. What is the source of self-esteem and self-worth and where does economics fit in? Where does mass media fit in? Where does generational trauma fit in? Racism? It is a challenge worthy of a solution.