Having a Voice is an American Dream

Crabby hears rain on the parade…

Yesterday Crabby met with a group of high school students he’s been working with on college options for a while. Several of the seniors shared their acceptances and we cheered them. Crabby turned to the younger students, especially the juniors, and asked how they were doing.

Shoulders were shrugged and eyes were lowered. “Well, have you met with a counselor yet?” he asked.

“They don’t really see us unless we go to them,” was the response. “We don’t have any real talks about college.”

“When you do, how do you talk about it?”

“They look at our grades and scores and give us a list of schools we can get into,” one student replied.

“Is that it?”

“Pretty much.”

“Do they talk to you about your interests, goals, or anything like that?”

“No.”

“What sorts of colleges do they recommend”?

[Students name a variety of local institutions.]

“Any colleges outside of Illinois?”

“No.”

Now, this is just sad. Crabby would like to give overburdened school counselors (many of whom are probably social/emotional counselors, not experienced college counselors) the benefit of the doubt. Illinois has one of the highest student-to-counselor ratios in the country, and many of Chicago’s high schools have thousands of students in them, with high levels of poverty and all the problems that come with it. It’s’s tough to keep track and connect with every student; you have to husband your resources. But to slot a student into a particular college “track” on such a flimsy basis seems arbitrary and even cruel. It denies students’ individuality and identity; it makes them widgets, not persons. Additionally, it drains the college process of opportunities for personal exploration and growth, which is a disservice to students and to colleges.

“Prescribing” a college based on two “symptoms” instead of on the totality of students’ lives is a world away from the kind of counseling that students in well-resourced public and private schools get. They are “seen” rather than “processed.” And here Crabby sees a bigger problem: students being told they have no real opportunities. The message isn’t presented that baldly, but that’s the one that’s there. No wonder so many students just give up and float through high school.

At the community center, students (a mix of African American, Latino, and Asian Americans), attend leadership seminars, plan service events, and (in this case) learning to play Korean drums. He sees their positive energy and commitment to each other. When he talks to them individually, he hears that they have many interests and ideas, if not specific goals. (What teenager who hasn’t been programmed from birth really knows what he wants?) They are more than the sum of their GPAs and test scores, but no one seems ever to have told them that. One senior who has yet to apply to college has drifted through school but when asked about his interests he says, “Classics and astronomy.” He’s lively and eager, but school seems to have drained him.

With the message of “Don’t bother about college” underpinning their lives in school, it’s no wonder so many students see no real incentive to do better. Then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: Arriving at junior year with so-so grades and often dismal test scores (remember the connection between scores and zip codes!), then being dismissed from the complexities and excitement of the college process, what would you do?

Crabby says, “This is America, people! You can aim for and apply anywhere you want, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise! You might succeed or fail, but you have the power to make your own decisions!” Crabby is not always so exclamatory, but hearing this message brings a sparkle to students’ eyes and a focus to their attention. It’s not the college part that excites them, Crabby thinks, as much as it is the idea that maybe they can choose what to do with their lives. That’s a new sensation for them.

Crabby doesn’t believe in the “You can achieve anything you put your mind to” doctrine–it’s too broad and unrealistic. He couldn’t be a brain surgeon no matter how much he wanted to be. But many options ARE within reach if students are motivated and shown how to prepare for them in plenty of time. Sometimes motivation can be as simple as looking a student in the eye and treating her like a person and not data. The gift of autonomy, assumed with privileged students, is massively important to those less-privileged.

Crabby tells his students that if they want to apply to [insert super-highly competitive college name here] it is their privilege to do so. However, they must first research and understand what they’re getting into. In this way, the college process becomes less about simply getting in somewhere than about clearly and honestly assessing one’s situation, exercising autonomy through making choices, and then coping with the results. The strengthening of an individual’s sense of control over his or her life may be the most important result of the college process, no matter what the outcome.

Several years ago, Crabby was part of an event where students had applied to colleges beforehand and then met with admission officers who interviewed them briefly and offered them decisions. One student, a Latino with so-so grades and scores, applied to Harvard but had not been invited to interview with them at the event. He came up to Crabby and said he wanted to talk with the Harvard admission person about that. Did Crabby think that was all right? Crabby was elated–here was a young man with the courage to face the Wizard and get some answers. In doing so he asserted his right to be heard, his personhood. Whatever else happened for him that day, he became someone who knows he has a voice. That’s an American Dream worth working for.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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About Will Dix

I am currently writing a book about college admission. I'm interested in the intersection of the college process and American culture. I attended Amherst College in the 1970s, taught high school English and theater at The Hill School in the '80s, returned to Amherst in the '90s as an admission dean, and began the '00s as a college counselor at the University of Chicago Laboratory School. I then joined Chicago Scholars as Program Director. Currently, I blog about college admission for Forbes.com. I also help community organizations serving low income students understand the college admission process so more students can consider gaining access to higher education. I have a few private college counseling clients that I take by referral only. The views expressed in this blog are mine alone.
This entry was posted in adolescents, African American students, American culture, college admission, college counseling, college counselor, education, first-generation students, high school, Latino students, test scores, testing, underserved students and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Having a Voice is an American Dream

  1. ccofsc says:

    Bravo!! Well said…passionate, on target and much needed comments. We have a crisis in public high school guidance and you have described it so clearly. Keep making a difference, Crabby.

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