Thankfully, Isabella decried this characterization as shortsighted and simplistic. My guess is that only students like her ever have to hear it.
The black and Latino kids I teach live in Inglewood and West Adams in Los Angeles. Their parents are house-cleaners, truck drivers, and non-union carpenters. When administrators, counselors, and teachers repeat again and again that a college degree will alleviate economic hardship, they don’t mean to suggest that there is no other point to higher education. Yet by focusing on this one potential benefit, educators risk distracting them from the others, emphasizing the value of the fruits of their academic labor and skipping past the importance of the labor itself. The message is that intellectual curiosity plays second fiddle to financial security.
While Isabella’s essay acknowledged her lack of economic advantages and portrayed with sensitivity her parents’ struggles, she was eager to focus first on nurturing her intellectual passion. She detailed how her curiosity about sea urchins and other marine life had led to a passion she wants to sustain through college and a subsequent career. College will ferry her to her intellectual destiny, not a financial windfall. She’ll make her life’s work what she wants to do, not just what she is able do.
My students are understandably preoccupied with money. They don’t have the privilege to not worry about it. They fantasize about what their future wealth will permit them to enjoy. They dream about specific models of cars in certain colors and gargantuan houses in particular neighborhoods and opulent meals at their favorite restaurants any time they wish. Many swoon over the East Coast liberal arts colleges they visit on the special trips that my school is thoughtful enough to arrange. Colleges like Swarthmore and Haverford fly students like Isabella out during college applications season. A few are accepted but most attend state schools, which, especially in California, can provide excellent educational opportunities. The irony, though, is that many of these students aspire to go to a liberal-arts school but don’t necessarily understand its significance. They’re drawn to sleepy quads, weathered brick, and cascading ivy, but they are resolutely pre-professional in spirit.
In contrast, at the private school I attended for the last two years of high school, my classmates thought about what they wanted to learn in college, not only what they wanted to become. Some knew medical or law school loomed in the future, but they thought about the work in a different way. My privileged classmates enjoyed money, from what I could tell. A few reveled in their cars and clothes, but most appeared to take it for granted. They didn’t talk about it. Instead, a future doctor talked about working at the CDC to fight public health epidemics. A future lawyer envisioned starting a defense firm to provide a service to the hometown community. Most of us wanted to do something special.