The NY Times article above profiles two young black men from low-income families in Jackson, Miss. who, against all odds, are now attending Yale and Harvard. Here’s what Travis Reginal, the Yale student, writes:
My mother was 15 when I was born. My parents were naïve, reckless and, in my father’s case, overwhelmed. So I was raised in a single-parent home. No one is surprised to hear that, unfortunately. That’s the norm in many African-American communities; in Jackson, more than half the households with children under 18 are single-parent.
Thanks to my mother, who highly values education, I found a productive substitute, burying myself in studying and reading. In 10th grade, I joined a new speech and debate club at Murrah High School
, started by a classmate named Justin Porter (now at Harvard). In him, I found what I had long hoped for — a black male who could push me intellectually. The work we did gave me a depth of analytical skills, perhaps my greatest preparation for college. I also found release in writing poems. In my admissions essay, I gave the reader a glance over my shoulder — at “the process of emptying my soul” — as I composed one.
Postsecondary administrators and pundits wonder why smart students from low-income families are not applying to top institutions. For one, said students may not know what is required to apply to an Ivy League
school. Had I not done my own research, I would not have known I had to take SAT subject tests. Also, it was important that the schools let me know I had a chance of getting in.
…For low-income African-American youth, the issue is rooted in low expectations. There appear to be two extremes: just getting by or being the rare gifted student
. Most don’t know what success looks like. Being at Yale has raised my awareness of the soft bigotry of elementary and high school teachers and administrators who expect no progress in their students. At Yale, the quality of your work must increase over the course of the term or your grade will decrease. It propelled me to work harder.
…The anxiety has not gone away. I do not feel like the accomplished person everyone thinks I am. But I hope to inspire African-American youth to pave a path to success, regardless of the college they go to or the trade skills they acquire. I know from my personal story that many young people living in at-risk neighborhoods have large imaginations, passionate hearts and deep desires to transcend their community.
He also writes a beautiful poetic tribute to his mother.
And here’s what Justin Porter, the Harvard student, writes:
You might consider me a classic overachiever, minus the money for a college consultant. I had taken every Advanced Placement class
I could fit into my schedule — 9 of the 12 Murrah
offers. I had participated in science competitions at state and national levels. I had the requisite leadership roles: editor of my high school newspaper and president of its chapter of the National Honor Society. I had started a debate team with some of my closest friends, and spent my free time tutoring elementary and middle school children in mathematics and English.
To my delight, I was notified of my acceptance into Harvard College
on Dec. 15, 2011, three days before my birthday. That night, after all of the celebratory texts and hugs, I sat in my room and began to cry uncontrollably.
I felt trapped between the two worlds in front of me. One held seemingly unlimited opportunity — full scholarship, career advancement, travel possibilities. But what would I sacrifice in exchange? My mother and I have never been on firm financial ground, and that was not going to magically change. It suddenly hit me why I was so troubled by her hesitant look: it was the same look she gave me the first time we were evicted from our home. What would happen to her if I left? When she was laid off from her job a few weeks later, my fears multiplied.
The guilt was invasive; beneath my smile, shame dominated my thoughts. I spent the last few weeks of my senior year worried sick — that if I left she would not have enough to eat, a safe place to live, loving company to listen to her stories. I decided to defer my acceptance.
She would hear nothing of it. “Your acceptance into Harvard is one of the shining accomplishments of my life,” she said, “and I’ll be damned if I see you give it away.”
I did not.
Earlier this year, I read an article about the failure of elite colleges to attract poor students: a Stanford study had found that only 34 percent of top students in the lowest income level had attended one of the country’s 238 most selective colleges.
I do not believe that increasing financial aid packages and creating glossy brochures alone will reverse this trend. The true forces that are keeping us away from elite colleges are cultural: the fear of entering an alien environment, the guilt of leaving loved ones alone to deal with increasing economic pressure, the impulse to work to support oneself and one’s family. I found myself distracted even while doing problem sets, questioning my role at this weird place. I began to think, “Who am I, anyway, to think I belong at Harvard, the alma mater of the Bushes, the Kennedys and the Romneys? Maybe I should have stayed in Mississippi where I belonged.”