In American educational institutions, students that do well have a connection between their self-worth and academic achievement. In other words, successful students actually care if they do good or bad in school. Now there are a few students who make it by who do not base their self worth on their academic achievement but they are often students that teachers talk about as “not living up to their potential.”
As it has been and continues to be in America, race continues to play a significant factor if we look at who graduates from high school and makes it to college and eventually through to earn a college degree, thus impacting income and familial opportunities. A family with at least 3 college going generations has a clear advantage over the person who is the first in their family to go to college as well thus socio-economic issues, intertwined with race definitely impact a child’s academic situation. The basic knowledge of where the financial aide office is located, the deadlines to apply, are within the knowledge base for a 3+ generation family vs. the new kid on campus. In America’s history many people have been denied the opportunity to attend college due to race, class, gender, and finance. Today, while many of the barriers of discrimination via race are gone and class are gone, the other challenges that resulted from years of institutionalized exclusion still remain—especially in regards to finance. Worst yet, tuition rises each year, especially at state run schools. Where I work over 70k students applied and only about 4000 were admitted.
For a young person who lives near a state school, who earned a 3.0 grade point average or better (out of a 4.0 scale), is the first in the family to go to college, scored a low to mediocre score on the SAT—that student may be denied college entrance. In one instance it may be because there was a student who went a high school where they could earn a 3.0 GPA (out of a 5.0 scale) and score a mediocre to high score on the SAT after taking a class that their 3+ generation college parent paid for – thus they beat out the first generation college student. In the other instance, college may be denied because the1st generation or 2nd generation college student’s family income did not keep up with the tuition hikes. What is a student to do? How do they justify this denial in their mind? They may say, “I know I am a good student! My self-worth is not going to fall because this school denied me or my financial situation is denying me. This will not get me down.” The successful 1st generation student in this situation will regroup and apply to another institution, take the SAT again, and move on. The unsuccessful student may say, “Well, college is not for me any how.” True, college may not be for everybody but there should be a lot more folk able to attend--especially Black, Latino, Native American, and Samoan students.
If this type of denial has happened to generations of families, then after a while the students of these families have to find self worth in other venues. The family may still value education but not at the cost of their familial and communal pride. When I worked at a high school in Long Beach, I got to know may Black students who did not want to take the SAT, which would simply have measured them by a snapshot of their skill set in just one test. As a university professor I have encountered this same phenomena with Black folk who I know were smarter, more qualified than me but did not want to take the Graduate Record Exam and chose to attend a more expensive lesser known graduate school for their masters or doctorate degrees, rather than take a $150 test or $1000 class, that could have save them thousands of dollars in tuition. They did not want to chance their self worth. Why would grown people and their children not want to risk it? The answer, again, after generations of denial by academic institutions; their self worth, acceptance, and validation is found in other places like church, community organizations, business etc. No test is going to rate them.
Now I bring up examples of Black life, because that is my lens to the world and I acknowledge that but for all parents, especially those who are the first in their family to go to college, know that it is ok to tie your child’s self worth to their academic achievement. However, do so with a clear purpose. Many, “so-called minorities” in America have attained education and political power for the purpose of helping their family and others in their community. Along the way that community extended itself to other like minded folk they went to class while in college. I teach and have gone to school with Latina women who’s parents did not understand why their daughters wanted to keep going to school to earn a masters or doctorate. Again, in this situation the self worth is not tied to academic achievement. For many of my Latina colleagues their families were concerned about their eligibility for marriage as a measure of self worth rather than academic prowess. My Latina friends wondered, “Why can’t I have both education and marriage in my own time?” Again, I contend, no matter what your ethnic heritage or socio-economic background, it is ok to focus on tying you and your child’s self worth to academic achievement as long as you have a clear purpose to serve family and community.
The self-esteem and self worth of an obese, male, gay, Drag Queen in West Long Beach is intact regardless of the academic circumstance. That is resilience not yet connected to academic achievement. However, because our drag queen’s self worth may not reinforced at the same level his friends at the dance club praise him, he may drop out because he needs to receive the validation at the dance club as “Her Royal Highness”. A Latina teenager may want to become a mother too soon and drop out of high school before she applies to college because she gets her self worth from being a mother. A Samoan high school senior may not want to play football for Wyoming State on a full scholarship because he would miss his family too much and his family is where he gets his worth. For those of you that are educators you may have witnessed these scenarios. I encourage you to help families find ways with dignity to attach the self worth of the child to academic achievement. For our drag queen, introduce him to “Queer” history and advocacy for the voiceless. The Latina may find acceptance and the respect she deserves as a child development major and eventually a school psychologist. The Samoan family may need to move to Wyoming to start a whole generation of family attending college. Let’s connect folk to their full potential.
Especially for my parents, college may not for everyone but in this great country of ours, there are too many opportunities not to try. Now, I am speaking to myself because I have to catch myself some time. I was the student who did not reach my potential till much later so my self worth was not really tied to my academic achievement until I was in graduate school. I was not till I made it to my master’s program that I found my purpose in life and that is advocating on behalf of so-called "minorities” in education. My parents gave me a drug problem. Like the song said, “they drug me to church every week.” They also “drug me” to tutoring, college-awareness night, San Diego State University for their master's degree classes, to visit college-educated men etc. Many of my teachers did not see the potential in me but my parents knew. I am the first in my family to earn a doctorate! Not simply because my mother would have no less than my best effort (i.e. beat me with a belt) in school but because I knew my academic achievement would mean something to somebody via my service to the community. So parents, be patient with that boy sent to the principle’s office because that was me back in the day. Be patient with that girl who is arguing with mama over homework because that was my sister who has a degree from UCLA and a Master’s degree from the University of Phoneix and Harvard (Shout out to my Sister Teri Gamble)! Your academic and intellectual growth is worth something my sisters and brothers!
Friends, let us be patient with ourselves as we work to achieve our goals yet strong on our resolve to do so. Remember sometimes it is good to be insulted and tested. You may have been told you can’t do something and you go on without taking that a challenge to your self worth. No, take that challenge up and overcome it. Test yourself, pray, remember how you got over the past, and/or surround your self with folk who will validate your efforts. If it is not school or your are done with school, then there has to be something that you want to do to show yourself and your family that you are reaching your full potential. For me it was surfing which is omething I always wanted to do as a small child. I finally started at the age of 35 and I enjoy every minute of it. Go do it with a little chip on your shoulder not because you are all that but because your efforts are too important not to be shared with the world. We need folks who value themselves and their contributions. People who don’t are the first to drop out, quit, give up, and rationalize “I do what I wanna do… That school or job ain’t no good anyway” yet they are jealous and hate on those who are successful. Some places call it “crabs in a barrel.” We are better than that ya’ll. Hang in there ya’ll and know you are valuable to me.
Peace & Health,