While writing a ‘Going to College’ enrichment lesson plan I thought my lead-in was iron-clad: What do you want to be when you grow up? My intention (however naïve) was to elicit student responses that would allow me to begin making the case for college as a necessity to meet career goals. The first student raised her hand, “I want to work at the mall.” Ok. I could make a case for how college might help you work at a mall. Second student, “I want to work at Subway”. Hmmm. Third student, “I want to be a soccer player.” I was falling quickly into an abyss, none of the students were giving answers that would lend themselves easily to making the case for college as a necessity. Back to the drawing board. Read on to find out my thoughts on college education as a necessity.
Many folks in my generation are college bound or college educated. No matter what our career aspirations are, a college degree would help give us a leg up in the job market. How do you sell this to students whose role models are star athletes who haven’t gone to college, magazine models, or movie stars. Talking to some of my colleagues, they started explaining that they’ve started using a ‘common sense’ approach; since college isn’t for every student they don’t stress its importance. After all, there are many highly successful people who haven’t graduated from college. Right? Right. But who are they? What do they look like? What resources did they have at their disposal?
The students I work with hail primarily from low-income, immigrant, highly transient communities that afford them very little stability. Think for a second about what society expects for them? I can almost guarantee that the highest expectation does not include a college education. Their older siblings might drop out of high school to help the rest of the family, a role that these students will have to assume once they achieve legal working age. College isn’t a priority not because these students don’t want it but because they don’t have the luxury of thinking about it.
All of the jobs my students talked about can offer success and certain financial stability but it was my responsibility to push their thinking further. Who designed the mall? Who runs the corporations that call a mall home? These folks are almost always college educated and make a living telling less educated people what to do. Who enjoys being told what to do? Who wouldn’t rather create something or start a successful company? Successful dancers have gone to college to study technique and dance history. College educated professional athletes are on the rise because it gives them something to fall back on once their sporting career is finished. What about the student who wants to work at Subway? Think about who designs the marketing strategy for the sandwich giant. Who has the opportunity to travel around the country trying to find the best site for a new market.
The light bulbs began to turn on.
Even if college is not a reality for the students I work with I must inspire them to work relentlessly toward the halls of academe. I must tell them to rewrite the stories that have been written for them even before they were born. I must show them that their communities are underrepresented in the board rooms where decisions are made. No matter where they end up they must help create a different story.
This challenge is personal. No one in my immediate family went to college and not because they didn’t want to, they had to sacrifice their futures for me, my siblings, and my cousins. I have been blessed with the opportunity to make my family proud and to make good on their sacrifices. I am rewriting the story of young immigrant men because I need to. If you work with students, talk to them about where they come from and where they want to go. Frame college for them in the context of a ‘must-do’, not a ‘may do’, and most definitely not a ‘can’t do’.