It’s that time of year again. Five Star notebooks, Paper Mate pens, and number 2 pencils clutter the checkout lines of every discount retail store. Whenever I stream Hulu, I see this Walmart commercial with Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman leaving their homes to attend school. Before they walk into the doors of their school building they transform into three pre-teens. Despite how tiresome I find the repetition of Hulu commercials, I still grin when I see it. And it’s not just because I’m a nerd or because of my childhood connection with superheroes.
I smile because I see the connection between pursuing an education and being held as a hero, especially for first-generation students. The cultural narrative encapsulating the process of leaving home to attend college adheres very closely to the classic Hero’s Cycle. Joseph Campbell was a mythologist who noticed that all heroic stories have a common pattern: the protagonist leaves home to embark on a journey of self-discovery, they overcome formidable obstacles, then return home to save their community. Of course, Campbell’s observations are more complicated than my summary. Every story is. But the Hero’s Cycle describes the challenges of being the first in your family to attend and graduate college.
In every heroic story, the onus is on the hero to overcome whatever obstacle or challenge lies in their path. Whether it’s fair or unfair, the same is true for marginalized students. These students are responsible for finding spaces of belonging and inclusion within the confusing, and often hostile, spaces they navigate. One of the sad aspects of the classic heroic story is how the hero changes to the point of becoming unrecognizable by his home. In order to save his home he has to leave it and his old self behind. He has to transform into a new person. A mentor in grad school told me I was being a hero because I want to use my education to make my home and community better, and I cringed. I don’t try to think of myself as a hero, but as someone who owes a debt to my home. My home gave me the opportunities to better myself, so it’s only right I use what I’ve gained to help others. If it wasn’t for my home, I would not have made the choices that allowed me to attend college.
There are various methodologies researchers use to analyze college choice, but one of the most commonly used models is Perna’s (2006), which seek to situate a student’s college choice in four contextual layers: (1) the individual’s habitus; (2) school and community context; (3) the higher education context; and (4) the broader social, economic, and policy context. Regarding each category, Perna asserts that the habitus reflects an individual’s demographic characteristics; school and community context acknowledges ways “social structures and resources facilitate or impede student college choice”; the higher education context acknowledges “the role higher education institutions play in shaping college choice”; and the social, economic, and policy context acknowledges college choice is influenced “by changes in social forces, economic conditions, and public policies.”
As old as I can remember, I knew I wanted to go to college. It was always expected of me and I never thought I wouldn’t make it. I just knew that my parents didn’t have a college degree and I if I earned one, I would have a greater chance at gaining a better life. Moreover, I knew I was expected to use what I gained to help my family. Whenever someone compliments my mom on raising me, they say something along the lines of, “Val, your son is really going to take care of you” or “You’re going to be set, Val. You did a great job.” I heard it as a high-achieving high school student and throughout college. I heard it as recently as 3 months ago when I graduated from my master’s program.
Six years ago, when I entered my freshman year at Kalamazoo College, I thought I was ready. But I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I didn’t know about microaggressions, racial battle fatigue, or impostor phenomenon. And moreover, I didn’t realize how I would change so much that my family would cease to recognize me. Just three months after I left for college, I visited home during winter break and my mother observed that I had an accent. A few weeks later I was talking to one of her close friends, who’s like an aunt to me. I don’t even remember what I was discussing. I might have been explaining something I was studying in one of my classes. But I do remember her reaction. She blurted out, “Hold up. I need you to bring down what you’re saying. Right now, you’re talking above me. Bring it down for us little people.”
I was disconcerted to the point of disillusionment. Gaining an education yet losing touch with my family felt Faustian, like I was selling out. Interestingly enough, the sense of selling out was a defining theme my freshman year. Every year, the Black Student Organization put on a show called Cultural Awareness Troupe (CAT), with the theme being, “Soul’d Out.” This was the same year Trayvon Martin was killed because George Zimmerman thought he looked suspicious. Some of my professors and the Kalamazoo College staff treated me suspiciously. I felt isolated both at home and school. My initial college experiences are unfortunately quite common among students of color and first-generation students, especially black men. The reason for this commonality in adverse experiences connects with the history of higher education.
Universities as they exist today descend from Bologna and Paris and were not initially established for the pursuit of knowledge but for the wielding of economic power. Higher education was created from a system that perpetuated economic inequality on both a racial and class level and thus was designed to continue the managing of the social and economic system that founded it. In Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities (2013), Craig Steven Wilder writes: “The founding, financing, and development of higher education in the colonies were thoroughly intertwined with the economic and social forces that transformed West and Central Africa through the slave trade and devastated indigenous nations in the Americas. The academy was a beneficiary and defender of these processes. An education in Hartford and Cambridge was reasonable preparation for living among the slaveholders of Alabama” (p. 1-2). When institutions of higher learning were first founded in the U.S. their purpose was aimed towards educating and training the men of the aristocratic and business elite in traditional Christian and civil values. Though American political and social thought was ostensibly founded upon ideals of universal equality, these ideals did not really come into fruition until the twentieth century with the onset of the Civil Rights era. Slavery, the acquisition of lands from Native Americans, the lack of women’s suffrage until the 1920s, and Jim Crow laws are all aspects of American history that point to the long, convoluted arc for daily American life to reflect the lofty ideals of equality presented in the Declaration of Independence and the Jeffersonian Ideal.
While access to higher education has slowly expanded, the underlying structures and design has not changed much, which does not make it easy for the historically marginalized, such as students of color, women, students from low socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds, etc. to feel a sense of belonging. Sense of belonging is one of the most crucial factors contributing to students remaining in school and completing their degree but in most cases, historically marginalized students must seek this out for themselves. There is copious pressure that’s placed on a person when they know they’re expected to succeed in an unfamiliar place for which they have no parental experience to pull from. It’s basically taken for granted they will be successful. Why wouldn’t they be?
The answer is there’s a lot more that goes into being a college student than simply getting good grades. That seems like an obvious point but it’s one that colleges and universities are still grappling with. While more first-gen students than ever before are entering college, we’re not graduating at the same rate as our counterparts whose parents have college degrees. In fact, we’re not anywhere close. According to the Educational Advisory Board (EAB), of non-white, low-income, first-generation college students, only 10% graduate. That’s a higher attrition rate than the percentage of candidates who make it through the training to become Navy SEALs.
If someone fails to become a SEAL, they aren’t considered a failure in life. They’re still highly competent individuals and are probably more skilled than the vast majority of people in the military. It’s expected that the bulk of SEAL candidates won’t make it. That’s just the way it works. But that’s not the way higher education should work. The majority of candidates for a bachelor’s degree should make it.
In a study published in The Journal of Negro Education, Karl W. Reid (2013) observed that Black women are earning 66% of the bachelor’s degrees of black people and a majority of master’s and non-professional doctoral degrees, making the graduation gap between Black males and females the largest gender gap of any subgroup. Black men are not integrating within higher education as successfully as black women. In his study, Reid presented a literature review examining self-efficacy and its role in black retention in higher education. Reid proclaimed self-efficacy as deriving from four factors: previous academic success, role models, affirming verbal messages, and physiological state. However, the studies lack insight into the role of self-efficacy in black male achievement. The last factor Reid offers a literature review of is identity. The literature informs that for the historically marginalized, identity has a compulsory aspect since it is forced upon by dominant culture and groups. For the black male, this has a particularly enforced aspect since the views, cultural images, attitudes, beliefs, and microaggressions we experience imposes an identity upon us that is often negative and contradictory. This process affects black men well into our college years, long after the process of becoming aware of what it means to be black in America.
Being a black male, first-generation, low SES student raised in a single-parent home has always made me feel like I had something to prove. Society is not kind to men who openly display weakness or vulnerabilities. Men are trained to repress our emotions and deflect when others check in on us. Men are conditioned to feel lesser than who we’re supposed to be if we must ask for help. While this holds true for men regardless of race, this is even more true for black men due to white supremacy, toxic masculinity, and lack of adequate support structures. Perhaps this is one of the reasons I’ve always loved stories of heroes. Usually, heroes are someone with something to prove–they’re the underdog. And that describes the vast majority of first-generation students of color. We arrive to college with a chip on our shoulder, a sense of grit, as Dr. Terrell Strayhorn and other higher educational scholars have termed it. Grit only goes so far though, because it’s nothing without an anchor, a sense of who one is and where they belong.
In The Journal of Negro Education, scholars Eunyoung Kim, & Demond T. Hargrove (2013) noted that Black students at HBCUs outperformed their counterparts at PWIs due to the supportive environments of their campuses. Kim and Hargrove also noted that other studies uncovered an underlying theme of being underdogs with the aim of proving others wrong as a strong coping mechanism applied by Black students. In other words, being aware of the negative stereotypes regarding Black male achievement galvanized their sense of competition and indignation, encouraging them to be more persistent in interacting with faculty.
However, the research does not elaborate on the possible negative psychological effects of the coping mechanism. More research developed since has framed how important developing supportive relationships with peers of the same sex and race is for Black male achievement which Kim and Hargrove state reflect high self-efficacy and strong sense of Black identity. One of the key points the Kim and Hargrove make is while the strategies employed by Black men at both HBCUs and PWIs are comparable, Black men at PWIs suffer the effects of racial battle fatigue while their HBCU counterparts do not. Additionally, whereas the Black men at PWIs had to develop self-efficacy independently of their institutions, Black men attending HBCUs developed self-efficacy because of their institutions. Kim and Hargrove situate resiliency as a process rather than quality. In other words, Black men must engage in enormous psychic expenditure to succeed in higher education and have to employ a number of coping strategies to do so.
In order to leave home, first-gen students of color need to create another home, a home made up of each other, mentors, and faculty/staff. One cannot survive in higher education without a sense of belonging. Consider the story of Cain and Abel. After Cain murdered his brother, God cursed him to wander the world for the rest of his life, to be a perpetual nomad and never accepted by society. I often wonder how long before such isolation can drive a person mad and it’s no wonder that so many first-gen, students of color are not making it in college. Now, I’m in a position to help students who leave home to find a home. To be honest, I’m not sure of all the ways in which to do that but if nothing else, I hope by writing this piece I’m one step closer to a solution.
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