I’ve been working with an undergraduate, a senior. She is African American, from a poor family. None of her elders went to college, although a few cousins are doing it. She graduated at the top of her class in an inner-city high school, where she says she never had to do any work to make As. Her writing is markedly deficient compared to the predominantly-affluent predominantly-privileged students here, and she struggles academically. Although as a faculty we fight against the rigidity of the five paragraph essay most students had drilled into them in high school, this student was never taught it. She has worked on her writing all through college, and says she is much better now than when she got here. I mentioned to her something about helping my son write a graduate school essay and she almost cried at the thought of a parent being able to give that kind of help. I told her that I did not want to diminish the realities of privilege and struggle, but the one thing she could hold to herself that the privileged cannot is the knowledge that, whatever she does, she did it. She can claim all her achievements as her own, not as the product of privilege.
Would this student have been better off to go to a community college where the classes were geared for other ill-prepared students? I don’t think so. As much as she has struggled, she has kept going and will graduate, and has learned a lot more here among the privileged, where the curriculum is more demanding. That is, if she can keep up her morale and self-esteem in the face of the struggles. And I think about all those people who imagine that admitting disadvantaged students into selective schools is somehow “giving” something to people who do not deserve it. As a straight-A student in high school, she can hardly have been said to be admitted as some kind of gift. Whatever her weaknesses are, they have to be blamed on her school, not on her.