Acceptance letter season is once again upon us. This means that, inevitably, countless stories will be shared on our timelines and through news outlets that highlight the exceptionally gifted students who have overcome insurmountable barriers to be accepted into highly competitive, top-ranked schools across the nation. It is important that we share the success stories of individuals who come from traditionally marginalized, underrepresented or underserved backgrounds in order to combat negative stereotypes and to create role models for those whom they can identify with.
However, the reality is that most of us have never even thought to even apply to an Ivy League school. Many of us end up attending our local public universities or community colleges, if we are fortunate enough to have the opportunity to do so while working various jobs, taking out loans, and/or receiving some financial assistance.
As an undergraduate student, I remember spending 20-30 hours a week on the Las Vegas Strip cleaning tables at the Stardust Hotel & Casino inside of a Tony Roma’s restaurant – all while working on a degree in Education with the hopes of creating positive impact for students like myself who did not have the cleanest path through Education.
My family fled Vietnam during the war and came to the United States as refugees. They took on service and gaming industry jobs in Las Vegas because at the time you could make a decent wage doing so while having limited formal education and English capacity. Although I am not the most familiar with their story, I know that my parents met in Vegas, got married, and then got divorced two months after I was born. They ended up leaving me for my grandparents to raise me while we collected welfare and food stamps. My grandparents did not work and barely spoke any English. By the time I was in second grade, I was helping to translate visits to the doctor, letters from the Government, and paperwork from school. They came from Vietnam, where neither of them got beyond a middle school education. I love my grandparents and owe them everything for stepping in to raise me when my parents were unable, but, how could they have possibly helped me figure out the path to college when neither had the language nor experience for it?
This is just one of countless stories that we carry as we try to navigate this journey through higher education. Having worked multiple roles that encompassed advising, retaining, and supervising students at three different public higher education institutions, I have seen a wide array of paths, experiences, and privileges in this space. One hour, I’ll be working with a student in a traditional sorority who is filing appeals to change required coursework to study abroad in Europe and the next, I will be working with a student who is simply trying to figure out ways to find enough funding to make it through another semester.
While I celebrate and respect our exceptional students from marginalized backgrounds who manage to get the highest SAT scores, perfect GPAs, and multiple leadership positions, we must also recognize and validate the experiences that fly under the radar. Far too often, we center and highlight our students that are heavily engaged as campus leaders to tokenize on our websites, flyers, and promotional materials. Although this practice empowers, validates, and acknowledges achievements of underrepresented students, I believe that it can also have a lot of damaging effects if gone unchecked.
By centering the stories and experiences of marginalized groups on the few who have exceeded traditional expectations on conventional measures of grades, test scores, and campus engagement, we inadvertently send a message that implies that you are only valued or you only hold worth if you have done an exceptional job at assimilating. At its core, the argument for increasing diversity in a space of learning is to bring in unique backgrounds and experiences in order to challenge and present new ways of thinking to further existing or to create new knowledge. What is the point if we only highlight their ability to fit into the standard norms?
Commuter students who work long hours while attending school are normally invisible in the dominant campus narrative because they are viewed as not engaged or un-invested. Universities typically view long work hours as a barrier to scheduling or a lack of commitment to coursework when we should be celebrating these students for being able to maintain jobs and developing work experience while funding their own education.
Students who come from non-Native Standard English speaking families are often forced to internalize the belief that the language of their family hinders their development English. Students who have had to navigate multiple languages, code-switch, and language broker for their families bring with them an incredibly valuable set of skills that do not get recognized or capitalized once when they arrive on our campuses. They are informally led to believe that that part of their identity is reserved for their home space and not their higher education learning space.
Furthermore, this practice only serves to feed imposter syndrome, which is the internal feeling or thought process of capable students who start believing that they are frauds who have fooled others into admitting them into a space that they do not belong. When students of color only see their identities being highlighted in a predominately white space when they earn some prestigious scholarship, publish in an academic journal, or start a movement on campus, they start believing that anything less deems them unworthy which in turn leads to issues of low self-esteem or lack of sense of belonging.
For those of us who did not get accepted into eight ivy league schools on a fancy scholarship; for those of us who do not get to participate in campus events or student organizations because we have to work long hours to supplement the cost of tuition; for those of us who had to figure out campus applications, financial aid forms, and campus procedures on our own because our families did not have the language or previous knowledge to help us; for those of us who come from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds who simply persist through this dam process while feeling like we don’t belong: there is nothing wrong with us. In fact, we all bring a valuable set of experiences, skills, and knowledge that the education system, unwilling to be challenged, has not figured out how to measure or simply chosen to ignore.