Friday, May 15, 2009

Reflection on Blacks in Higher Education

I wrote the bulk of this a while ago, but with everything going on in my life both professionally and academically I felt it was as good a time as any to revisit the subject. As always, I value your opinions so please comment. Anyway, here goes:

I am planning on studying for the LSAT and to retake the GRE this summer with hopes of giving myself some options after completing my Masters, and it has forced me to critically analyze my personal and professional goals for the next few years. That said, I got to thinking about higher education in the U.S. as a whole and the problems that continue to restrict the black community from the upper echelons of our eternally stratified society.

"Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor; Your Huddled Masses Yearning to Breathe Free. The wretched refuse of your teeming shore, Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door." From the mind of Emma Lazarus, these words are found inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty; a warm invitation, a welcoming gesture to all nations and people, to come to the United States. For hundreds of years the citizens of every nation, tongue, and people have come to this country with the hope of a new opportunity, a new future.

The notion that a child born with the restrictive shackles of penury and persecution will be able to escape them through hard work and ambition remains a central idea in the self-portrait of the United States. The American parent makes an implicit pact with the country itself, with the sincere hope that this Land of Opportunity will enable their children to accomplish things beyond the scope of their greatest desires. Unfortunately, the reality of upward mobility in America is more problematic than the well-intentioned aspirations of those who call it home.

As the gap between rich and poor continues to widen, a closer examination of the policies and practices that led to our current state becomes increasingly necessary. A little more than half a century ago, Brown vs. Board of Education declared that racial segregation in public schools unconstitutionally denies students equal educational opportunities. Chief Justice Earl Warren submitted that "In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education."

Education continues to play a central role in the individual and collective elevation of historically marginalized populations, but I think that blacks have missed the point all too often. Let me be more specific. I know that for a number of the people that I have come in contact with (myself included), school is a means to an end. You want to make good money, so you need a college degree. Thus, when you get to school, wherever it may be, rather than studying those things that you are really interested in, you pigeonhole yourself into classes and majors that you think will lead you down the road to financial security. Along the way, some of us are lucky and actually find a talent and a passion for what we study in our quest to make money, but so many of us do not. There are a myriad of people that I know right now doing things that they hate, day in and day out, for a pay-check. Why is this?

So driven by their desires to obtain financial wealth, black students across the nation continue to subject themselves to unfulfilling and uninteresting curricula, throwing their passions by the wayside in the name of the almighty dollar. Additionally, entirely too many stop at their Bachelors degree when that degree is becoming about as valuable as a high school diploma in today’s marketplace. If we are to agree that education is the great equalizer and arbiter of opportunity in our society, we as blacks need to re-evaluate our dedication to education. It is essential that the mindset that allows us to shirk our talents and pursue money be nipped in the bud. It starts in the home and the school.

I can't speak for everyone, of course, but I know that I personally exerted this pressure on myself. I went to Villanova University on a full academic scholarship and majored in business. Why? Not for a transcendent love of business education and the academy. Not because I am a hard worker and was really interested in all of the fields I studied. I majored in Management Information Systems and Decision and Information Technology because I wanted to make money. Communications was the closest to aligning with my real interests, but I picked the other 2 because I needed the security of knowing that I could get a good paying job right out of college with my degree.

My real passions have always been writing and teaching. I love the way pen and pad can make ideas come to life. I love to share and discuss my ideas and opinions. I love transforming minds, alerting people up to new possibilities and ways of thinking. I love the look on someone’s face when they "get it". I should have double majored in education and communication, or maybe even journalism and education. However, teachers historically don't make good money, and it is very hard to break into high paying writing jobs. So my response? Major in Info Systems. There are high paying jobs. The average salary for someone who graduates with those degrees is about $45,000 to start. There are great opportunities for upward mobility.

I strongly believe that the reason there are not more African American faculty or even faculty that come from the lower socioeconomic backgrounds, is that the college education is widely misused. We, often the first generation of college students in our families, see the degree as a way to make moves up the social ladder through financial gain. So instead of doing things that interest us, whether through self-actualizing majors, or career pursuits in disciplines that we are personally passionate about, we place our real desires on the backburner and seek out careers where making good money is paramount. The would-be sociologist becomes an investment banker. The would-be biology teacher becomes a doctor. The would-be museum curator becomes an attorney. The would-be creative writer becomes a computer engineer.

In my college selection process, I applied widely because I had good guidance counselors and a mother that cared a great deal about me and believed in my potential to succeed. I applied to Princeton, Harvard, University of Pennsylvania, University of Southern California, UC Berkley, UCLA, Dartmouth, Brown, Villanova University, University of Delaware, Rutgers University and Carnegie Mellon. With a 4.0 and a 1560 on the SAT, I got accepted to every program (except Princeton still a little bitter about that because it was my first choice) but I went to Villanova because they offered me a full scholarship.

The Villanova Presidential Scholarship covered my room, board, tuition and books for 8 semesters of undergraduate study and was worth over $155,000. It made up my mind for me because it gave me an opportunity to get an excellent education without being a burden to my mother, a single parent who accrued seemingly endless debt raising three young men by herself. By going to college on scholarship, I could fill a number of important roles. I was a good student, a responsible son, and a good role model for my younger brothers.

I would love to see more opportunities for people of all backgrounds to attend school with little or no financial burden. Education's accessibility lies largely in the ability of individual party's to finance it. I struggle with this idea now as I seek ways to finance my Masters level education. I would be really interested to know what changes are being made to make post-baccalaureate education more accessible to people of lower socio-economic standing. Financial considerations should not continue to be a deterrent to higher education for highly qualified candidates, especially blacks. This discussion is exactly why I want to follow my Masters in Higher Education Management up with law school or a PhD. Serious knowledge and analysis of the policies and practices at work in our society are vital to begin the journey toward necessary change.

In a way, I hate that I conformed to expectations that were not even placed on me. I am happy to be where I am, and I would seldom change the experiences that helped me arrive in my current situation. However, I wish I had the personal fortitude to pursue my interests rather than doing what I felt was safe from the outset. In my recent trials, I have found that strength, and with it, I will dedicate the rest of my academic career to the pursuit of my passions. I will make sure that my children and my children's children can live lives doing what they really want to do. What is all the money in the world if you are not happy? What does it matter if you gain the world, if you lose your soul? I will break this vicious cycle, and the change will start, it must start, with me... today.

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