Redefining Success

Degrees will not guarantee jobs. If degrees don’t guarentee jobs then what does this mean for our larger society? What then becomes the purpose of higher education? As I read through the comments reacting to my latest blog post, I have a Ph.D. and I’m on Welfare, I remember all the reasons why we cannot wait anymore to have these conversations and take action. There are many suffering in silence and shame believing there is something deficient in them as individuals for believing in this larger national narrative of success that has been engrained in so many of us. This narrative states that if we just work hard, get a degree (or more than one) we will be able to make living wages (and then some).

The need to resist this ideology as absolute truth is urgent. Once we confront this fact as Xicana writer Ana Castillo responded to my piece stating that  Education is no longer the sure way in our reality, can we work towards social justice in real ways both inside and especially outside the “ivory tower”. The divide between the have and have-nots continues to increase and in these times are especially urgent under the current administration. There is an increased attack on public education as student loan debt is 1.3 trillion dollars and continues to soar.

The national narrative that we are made to believe is that Education is the “great equalizer”. We are told that if we just work hard, “pull ourselves up by the bootstraps”, we will succeed, but what if some of us don’t have boots to begin with? We already entered school on uneven playing grounds. Affirmative action was most recently threatened by the current administration who has the goal to remove it completely nationwide. The fact remains is that most people do not understand what affirmative action is or isn’t and that countless reports have shown the biggest beneificiaries of affrimative action are white women. Here in California, Proposition 209 in 1996 ended direct affirmative action, but that didn’t stop a (white) woman telling me the only reason I got into UC Santa Cruz as a transfer student in 2005 was because of my last name. Since the time I was at UC Santa Cruz, they have had to be creative in their recruitment of students in order to increase diversity. Their efforts have worked, as The Mercury reports,

“In 2006, just 2.6 percent of UC Santa Cruz undergraduates identified as African American compared to 4.1 percent last year, data shows. And preliminary data shows that 5 percent of incoming freshmen this fall identify as African American. The school’s Latino population almost doubled in the same period, surging from 15.5 percent to 29.1, while enrollment among white students dropped from about 50 to 32 percent.”

As diversity efforts continue to be devalued, so do diverse populations of students and people overall in society who have fought long and hard for generations for us to have a place where we were previously denied even with the so-called “merits”. Let us not fool ourselves, as many have written articles this past week about how meritocracy is false, for example, the Harvard Crimson reported this past week how it is a myth, “But if you think Harvard is a meritocracy, I have news for you: It is not, and has never been. This notion is a sham—a myth fabricated to make Harvard students feel that everyone has earned their spot here on their own merit. The truth is that, if you are born to parents who went to Harvard or who can donate large sums of money to the University, you get a leg up.” The article continues to point out how Jared Kushner the son-in-law of the President of the United States got into Harvard based off donations from his father. A former admissions officer for Princeton wrote to the New York Times stated that legacy admissions is affirmative action for whites, something many of us who work for social justice in higher education have long knew.

Success then in the U.S. context means the achievement of greater wealth and moving up in our socio-economic status as we achieve these higher level of formal schooling, but this system is rigged for most of us to fail. Investigating what achievement and success means is something I know about first hand because it was the topic I focused on for my dissertation in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies-Higher Education (for those who wondered what I studied). My dissertation looked at the experiences of Latinx community college students and how achievement and success can be redefined from their experiences. I also know what it means to believe in Education as a way, not the only way, to reach milestones that perhaps members of my family had not previously. I went on to transfer from a community college to a University of California school to complete my Bachelors and then attended graduate school and finished my Ph.D. at one of the top Education schools in the country. Was that the success though? I say it is not and especially not by the contradictory standards of this national narrative on it that we are fed.

Often times in my field, people including “scholars” and “experts” (even those who I have liked as professors) have the tendency to reinforce deficit thinking and define these terms from the top, only to have these definitions trickle down to the bottom unquestioned. This is a reflection of our society though, much like resources trickle down and are controlled by those at the top and those at the top continue to get the most in terms of tax breaks that are significantly more than funding that is spent on welfare for some of the neediest in this country. Much like our larger society, in higher education there is a hierarchy and at the “bottom” are voices you usually won’t hear from unless those at the top from the most elite of institutions deem them valuable enough to listen to. Unfortunatley those who came up through the hierarchy sometimes protect the interests of the top the higher they go because it means protecting their new found status. I know because I was once a community college student. I know because I continue to see how people view community colleges as institutions and how people judge the students who attend them.

What happens then after we make it through though all these challenges to attain degrees and then we have a hard time using them? What happens when the rest of us are straddled down with student debt because we believed if we just did it the “right way” we would be rewarded? We then apply to work and encounter countless denials. We find gatekeepers at every turn. We are then told we are lazy and we didn’t prepare or get a degree that was marketable. We are told we are not successful, but this guy and people like him never have their effort questioned. If only getting a job that paid over 100,000 was as easy as leaving a job application mostly blank and not having the experience. (I definitely would not be on welfare that is for certain).

What does success really mean then? In a capitalist society it means we will make money. We will buy a house. We will buy a car. We will have 2.5 children or we will work ourselves to death trying to get there no matter our formal schooling levels or credentials.

Or perhaps we can collectively redefine success by resisting this false narrative and stop perpetuating it in our daily lives in hopes we can create a more just society. That takes action. Individually, but also by universities and colleges to truly dedicate their resources to the places and people they say they care about and for us to continue to demand it.  Lastly, it needs to take action on a much larger scale because when we can ensure that people do not go hungry, homeless, without access to healthcare and education that would be the real success.

Photo: Presentation at a community college




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