Stumbling Toward Greatness: One Young Black Man's Story, Part 2

Lonely at the Top. Tai'Lon Jackson left his neighborhood in D.C. with a full ride to George Washington University, then life got complicated.

More students of color graduate high school and enroll in college than ever before. From 1996 to 2012, the number of Black students enrolled in college nearly doubled, headed toward equal rates with Whites. But what has gone unchanged over that time is the percentage of Black students who graduate. Nationally, about 62 percent of White students earn a bachelor's degree within six years of enrolling, compared with 40 percent of Black students.

Part of the problem is that Black and Latino students tend to "under-match." They choose less selective four-year schools or enroll in community colleges where graduation rates can be abysmal (20 percent nationally for an associate degree over three years).

Selective schools, and more so elite schools, tend to have much higher graduation rates and much smaller gaps between White and Black graduates. At George Washington, the gap is 9 percent (82 percent for graduation rate for Whites, 81 percent for Latinos, 78 percent for Asians, 73 percent for Blacks). Despite declarations that they'd like to attract more low-income and minority students, selective schools still struggle to enroll and graduate them.

What happened to Jackson his first semester demonstrates one reason why.

George Washington is labeled an "engine of inequality" by the Education Trust, a nonprofit focused on education, because it accepts few students from "working-class and low-income family backgrounds."

Jackson's scholarship covered the nearly $45,000 tuition (higher than his native D.C. Ward 8's annual median income), books, his dorm, and also put $1,700 on a student card for food and household supplies each semester.

Over the last four years, 29 students received the same scholarship, given to D.C. seniors from a variety of backgrounds. Of those 29, five are from Ward 8. Even so, three of those five attended Thurgood Marshall Academy, a law-themed college-prep school, where just about everyone continues on to college. Nothing like Jackson's high school.

He'd planned to study astronomy all his life. His mother pushed him toward science in part because she'd always loved it. As a child, her Styrofoam and coat-hanger replica of the solar system won the school science fair. She pushed him to explore the world—the universe—in hopes that he'd understand that it had more to offer than the short reaches of Southeast D.C. But in tenth grade, Jackson looked into job prospects for astronomers.

Before senior year, he attended a summer program at Stanford University, where he found that astronomers spend little time staring into space. Ever the pragmatist, he decided on aerospace-engineering, which offered a median salary above $100,000, some reaches into the sky, and held plenty of job opportunities.

At George Washington, Jackson enrolled in 17 credits his first semester. He had calculus, Japanese, chemistry, and two engineering courses. All his life, he'd waited to be here, among the elite.

On the first day of school last fall, Jackson sat in his calculus class among some 15 other students. None were Black. Jackson wore a striped hoodie, jeans, and old blue sneakers. He didn't have money for "first-day" clothes, but he'd grown used to that.

As the teacher's assistant discussed the lesson plan, Jackson thought, "OK, I'm gonna be alright." Much of the material outlined for the first week seemed to be a review of his senior math class. He sat through his chemistry lecture, Japanese, and afterward met up with his roommate, Llewellyn "Xavier" Richie. Richie was the other student on scholarship from Ward 8. He was Black, from a similar background, and the two had hit it off immediately. Around 8 p.m., the two headed to CVS. As they talked about the first day, Jackson got a call.

His girlfriend's sister, only in her 30s, lay dying of a heart condition at United Medical Center in Southeast. He and Richie hopped on a train. They offered to spend the night, but Jackson's girlfriend, a senior at Ballou High School, told them to get back to school. Soon, his grandfather would die. Soon after, someone would gun down his cousin.

Within weeks of starting, Jackson dropped his calculus class.

When he'd enrolled, he'd copied George Washington's recommended first-semester courses for his major. But the engineering department had made him take a math placement test. He did not do well. He was was supposed to sign up for a lower calculus class, a prerequisite to the one his major required. His first week, he was already behind. Now he needed to switch classes.

It was around this time that Jackson noticed the other students, at lunch, in halls, in class, staring at him. They eyed the missing wood tassels on his blue winter coat—the only coat he owned—the specks of bleach stains on his pants, and sneakers that lacked a name-brand logo. But it wasn't only the eyes. In the dorms, first-year students made friends and Jackson joined along, but whenever someone couldn't remember who sung a certain rap song, everyone looked to Jackson. As if by being Black he knew. Some students called him "Dawg," as in, "What's up, Dawg?"

White students weren't dawgs.

Once in the common room, a friend of a friend told him, "You don't talk like most Black people."

"Like most Black people?" he thought.

He'd sit in his calculus or chemistry class, the professor in midlecture, and he'd sense the eyes pausing on him. He'd quiet his anxious mind and think, "Me being Black is not the most important thing in their lives." Everyone here had made it to the same school.

But something always reminded him he was an outsider. Like when he and Richie would see the receipts students left behind after they withdrew money from ATMs—one account held a $10,000 balance. "These kids are the same age as us," Jackson would say to Richie. "What's going on?" Meanwhile, Jackson cut back on trips to the cafeteria. He kept microwavable meals in his dorm. As snow fell on the city, he layered hoodies beneath his thin winter coat.

His mother, Hellina, however supportive, had never finished high school. She'd grown up in Southeast and hoped to travel the world as a young girl but found herself stuck. She encouraged her kids by saying, "Just because we live in the ghetto, doesn't mean we have to be ghetto." She kept them in after dark. On weekends, they traveled downtown to the museums. She scrimped. She did without new clothes so she could afford science books and a fancy chemistry set. When Jackson reached high school, she wanted to hire a private tutor. She knew that Ballou, where only 20 percent of students score above proficiency in math and reading, could only help so much. But she couldn't afford a tutor.

As midterms approached, Jackson's grades slipped. His chemistry class outpaced him. In calculus, something didn't click. On Thursdays, when friends hung out at night, Jackson stayed in his dorm to finish math work. He stayed in Fridays, too, but the problems taunted him. He didn't know who to ask for help.

Midterms came out. He had a D average.

One night, Jackson returned to his dorm with his head lowered, despondent.

"Are you OK?" Richie asked.

"I think I'm just not ready for this."

"You wouldn't be here if you weren't ready for this."

"Man, I don't know."

Jackson thought about his SAT score, a 1630, which is above the national average, 1500, but 300 points below George Washington's average. He'd gotten straight A's at Ballou. But did that mean anything?

"I'm not on the same level as everyone else," he thought. "The people here had better teachers than I had. They had more in-depth classes. More preparation. The only reason they picked me is because of my GPA and my ethnicity. If I'd applied through general admission, I wouldn't have gotten in. 'Oh, he's Black, it makes our school look diverse. That makes us look good. Let's let him in.' I'm a failure. I'm going to let everyone down."

Finally, he thought, I should drop out.

If you missed it, read Part 1 here. Or continue to Part 3: Rising from the Ashes.