Backtalk

It seemed simple enough. You go to high school first, where you take Pre-Algebra, oh, say three times, and try not to get too many detentions. Before you know it, it’s May of senior year and after one SAT exam, 6,000 campus tours and a let’s-get-the-hell-out-of-high-school whoop, you’re off to college. At least, that’s the way I always thought it worked. Guess who was wrong. College is not so simple a process as apply, get accepted, pick a school and then pack the Volvo. Maybe this is the way college works for a white, upper middle-class chica like me. But some people live in a world where even the very thought of obtaining a college degree is a distant dream. I stepped into this world recently and the experience was…unsettling. I volunteer twice a week at a center for underprivileged youth in the city surrounding my college. Ok, so I have to volunteer for a class and at the beginning of the semester, the kids, be they underprivileged or little D. Trump Jr.’s, kind of made me nauseous. Actually, the mere thought of kids in general made me really nauseous. By now it’s November and the mini rug-rats have grown on me, if you can believe it. I liked them so much that I decided to invite a couple of them to come visit me for a day and see what college is like. This brainstorm occurred after a staff member at the twelve-year old youth center, Kids’ Korner, whispered something to me. Not one Kids’ Korner graduate has ever attended college. “For these kids, it’s just not in the cards,” she told me. “What? That’s absurd!” I think I may have shouted in reply. So that’s how one rainy Tuesday morning found two fellow college students, three eager 8th-graders and me trudging to campus. I swear, I’ve never seen anyone so happy to go to an 8 am biology lab in my life. The 8th graders, Zlata, Jasmine and T.J., were fairly bouncing up the hill, where daily college life awaited them. “You mean you can eat whatever you want for breakfast?” One of them asked me suspiciously after I took them to the dining hall for a mid-morning snack. I nodded. “Even just Doritos?” “Yup. “Even sushi?” “Even just Doritos mashed up in the sushi?” Hey, it’s college. But it was more than just liberty from Mom’s three square meals that these kids relished that day. It was the absolute and irreplaceable coolness of being on their own and going to classes with older teens. Zlata and Jasmine accompanied me to my Economics class, where they were shocked to learn that, in certain professions, women do not earn as much as men. I’m not sure if I should have stopped her but before I knew it, Jasmine’s hand shot up and she announced to a class of 20 startled (and semi-hung over) college students that she “would personally kick any pig man’s butt if he made more money than she did.” I showed the kids the library, took them to a yoga class, a rugby game and, at Zlata’s special request, gave them a tour of the medical school because she’s thinking of becoming a doctor someday. Each of the three kids was also given a cheap camera to record their day at college. Who cares if the majority of the polaroids, ostensibly planned for a “college collage,” ended up being of cute fraternity guys? Or that T.J. snapped a photo on the sly of a classics professor picking his nose? Zlata emigrated from Bosnia a few years ago with her mother and three brothers. Her father was killed in a bombing in Sarajevo just before they left. Zlata’s mom is still struggling to learn English; one older brother is jobless and the other is recovering from a heroin addiction. I’m pretty sure Jasmine is the first in her family to even plan on finishing high school, let alone think of attending college. And the most dependable employment for T.J’s parents, originally from Mexico, is work in farm fields. Before the day was done and we headed back down the hill to Kids’ Korner, I made sure we stopped by the financial aid department and picked up some forms about scholarships and student loans. So there is another world out there and perhaps there shouldn’t be, but that isn’t the point of this column. College isn’t just about parties and drinking and friends. It’s about hard work and progress. It’s about a privilege and responsibility that is accessible to all. To graduate with a college degree is to accomplish something and to then make your mark on the world. It’s not too late for Zlata (the doctor), Jasmine (the feminist) and T.J. (the photojournalist). And they weren’t the only ones who learned a couple lessons that day.