as Someone Who Came from a Low Socioeconomic Class?

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As someone who came from a low socioeconomic class, what harsh truth did you learn your first year at an elite U.S. university?

The harsh truth that I learned is that the reason that there aren’t more minority students earning graduate degrees is at least in part because the school and the faculty are so out of touch with the economic realities of low socioeconomic classes that t literally do not realize when policies are discriminatory. Let me share a story. In my last semester as an undergraduate, I visited an open forum for undergraduate students in computer science. Student representatives sat us down and we stared across the aisle at professors that had taken time out of the schedules to come and hear our concerns and maybe provide some answers to questions. I had brought what I thought was going to be a thought-provoking question and when my time came, I stood up and asked the following. Why does the college send hundreds of emails and notices a year about job opportunities and employment seminars and work-studies in various industries but not a single flier or email about GREs or what graduate school has to offer or how to recognize if a career path is well-served by considering graduate education? The chair of our Computer Science department, a small Asian woman, stood up and answered me with. Well, a large part of that is because we expect our graduate students to be more motivated. Besides which, you’ll find that your professors keep an eye on students with potential and will take the time to discuss opportunities with them in private. I was stunned. I remember staring at her and thinking “Are we having the same conversation? How can you believe that?” I’d been figuring out my own graduate studies plans and despite having a CV filled with teaching and funded research, and pursuing multiple degrees at once, nobody had so much as asked me what my plans were after graduation. Certainly, I recognized that maybe t didn’t think I was a good fit, but I knew other students of color who certainly hadn’t been spoken to despite their own successes. I stewed on that conversation for almost three months before I visited her over the summer and confronted her. When she saw me, she clearly remembered me and asked me what she could do for me. I replied. Professor, I’ve put a lot of thought into your answer to my question about why the department doesn’t advertise graduate studies better and I want to share some of my thoughts. What I’m about to say may be upsetting, but I hope you’ll hear me out and, if you find my thinking in error, you’ll do me the favor of explaining as much after I finish. —With her consent, I continued. You told me that you expected potential graduate students to be motivated. I did a small survey in some of the classes I TA’ed last semester and I asked them to answer three questions. “What race(s) do you identify as?” “How many people in your immediate family have a degree higher than bachelors?” and “If you are well-qualified and apply for a Ph.D, where should you expect to get the money to pay for your studies?” The results were exactly what I expected. Most students knew how to answer the last question (that the school will likely pay for your studies and a stipend), but most of the ones that couldn’t answer the question or believed that t should self-fund a Ph.D. had no family members higher than a bachelor and almost all of them reported as Black and/or Hispanic. My first point here is that I think if you were to try asking the same question among your own students, you’d find similar results. What this signals to me is that there’s little to no guidance at home to help promising students even understand graduate studies, much less make the sorts of decisions required to demonstrate motivation. —At this point, I could see that she was troubled and I soldiered through the second half. You also told me that professors pull aside students with promise and discuss graduate studies with them. I imagine that the sorts of students you look for are those who earn good grades in class, mention their interest in research or extracurricular activities, and who mention that t are considering academia. The problem with these is a matter of opportunity. Students who come from poorer households are often working part- or full-time to help cover educational or living expenses, so t’re always going to be forced to work harder to get similar grades and being asked to make hard choices like to work or to study. Further, because of jobs and equal opportunity programs and seminars and often higher at-home demands to help the family, these are the students least able to show interest in unfunded research or extracurricular activities. That, combined with the ignorance of having no good sources of information on graduate studies, leaves these students completely unremarkable, struggling to be noticed amid the mountain of demands on their time, money, and energy. —By this point, she was nodding slowly. So this is where I have to make my upsetting statement. What I’ve just described is an almost textbook example of institutional racism. It’s not the direct racism that people point to when t think of discrimination. It’s an insidious combination of factors that each look sensible and well-considered, but that as a set become a barrier that leaves people of color struggling to take advantage of opportunities. When we don’t know about opportunities and have our worthiness judged based upon how much time and effort we pour into our studies in direct comparison with people who have no other demands to meet? How can we hope to demonstrate our abilities? —To all of this, she was clearly caught flatfooted. I politely explained I just wanted to put these thoughts in front of her and hightailed it out of her office. The next semester I heard she’d started talking to more students of color to try and understand their plans for graduation.

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