I’m standing in front a room of high school students as part of my graduate assistantship. We’re talking about college readiness – why college is important, what you need to get there, how to get there, etc. Students of color fill the room and they are eager to learn about their opportunities after high school. It’s about 90 degrees outside and the building has no air conditioning. It’s an uncomfortable learning environment yet, their excitement prevails.
We facilitate a goals and obstacles activity for the group. Students are asked to list two goals and two obstacles on a set of footprints. The common these among obstacles? Being a person of color and simply – fear. Just in case no one has told them yet, we affirm that we believe in them.
How do we respond to high school students who are scared to tackle the college process? How do we respond to students that are scared to tackle the process because of concerns related to financial aid, their families, lack of resources, themselves?
Answer: We, as higher education practitioners, start bridging the gap between lower SES school districts and our institutions.
We show students that:
- college IS an option
- there ARE resources they can utilize and explain how one can attain these resources
- our institutions are actually invested in their futures
We must get out of our comfort zone. Let’s dive into the underserved, underrepresented communities who desperately need our attention. We need to start moving our staff, our institutions, our cohorts, ourselves, towards being equity-minded leaders so we can continue to expand our student bodies and move away from the continuation of whitewashing higher education.
“Equity minded leaders are aware of the historical context of exclusionary practices in higher education and recognize the impact of this history. Equity-minded leaders also reject the ingrained habit of blaming inequities in access, opportunity and outcomes on students’ own social, cultural and educational backgrounds” (AAC&U, 2015. pp. 4).
Being an equity-minded leader recognizes that it is not the fault of our prospective students that they may be a little squirmy in their seats because it is hot and uncomfortable to learn in their classroom. Being an equity-minded leader doesn’t refer to neighborhoods where school districts receiving less funding as “sketchy” or “hopeless.” These communities are often excluded from our outreach and focus. Hence, continuing to make our institutions more predominantly white.
It’s going to take time to implement the effective education policies and funding reform for our public school sector that we need to bridge opportunity gaps. We must adapt to our current climate and bridge those gaps ourselves. I believe the first step is to build strategic relationships with teachers and administrators in underserved communities. This allows us to better understand how we can best address their needs and what resources can we provide for their benefit. We will have to repackage our existing materials and update our processes to ensure what we are offer is accessible to all students regardless of their ethnicity, socioeconomic background, religion, sexual orientation, etc.
There is absolutely NO excuse for the public education system in this country. We have a system that claims to value education, especially for those in lower-middle/lower class socioeconomic neighborhoods. Still, these neighborhoods do not receive the same resources as their affluent counterparts. There is absolutely no excuse for these students to not have the skills and resources needed to pursue higher education.
Underserved and underrepresented students have dreams, potential and intelligence. They long to be someone’s priority and to be seen as equally as important as their peers. We have the opportunity to position ourselves as game changers in this field by making our institutions, resources and opportunities accessible to all of our surrounding communities. Underserved communities should be the forefront of the conversation, not an afterthought. And working with these communities should be more than a diversity requirement to check off of our lists. We have the power to break poverty cycles, mentor leaders and change lives.
The journey towards higher education starts long before a student enters their senior year of high school. I challenge you to be an equity-minded leader. Take a leap of faith and embark on this new and rewarding journey to educational excellence.
This post is part of the Emerging SA Pro series following four awesome people: Michelle, Sara, Thalia, and Holly. Join us as they blog monthly about a year in their journey as a new SA Pro or SA Grad. We are proud to help them share their stories.