It doesn’t matter how long it takes you. I told this to my students recently. I often give extra words of encouragement to the students who don’t even think they can go to college because they find themselves short on credits, in a continuation school, or in general feel as if they are incapable of doing well in school. I ask them who lied to you? I explain how I barely graduated high school and could have very well been in continuation school. I tell them I failed often and graduated with a 2.4 from high school. They look at me surprised at first then with a little more hope. I realize we are up against a lot every single day and it weighs heavy on them and collectively on us as we gather. I tell them we can start by learning we each have to take care of another and support each other in finishing our work for the week. This is why we begin each day reciting In Lak’ech “Tu eres mi otro yo, you are my other me”. We will look out for another and offer support. That is how we move forward. I realize this is how I finished all these degrees I now have my Ph.D. It all happened one day at a time.
This week the rest of my classes finally received books (I now lead a Latinx studies program for a district teaching at 3 high schools). I tell them what they are holding in their hands is a college level textbook and how great they did reading out loud. I emphasize this point because I know if they are capable of doing things they don’t think they can do right now, then they will begin to believe that college or whatever else they want to pursue is not as far of a dream or impossible as they may think. I tell the students when you get to a community college (as many of our Latinx youth are destined), it doesn’t matter how long it takes you to finish community college or any other schooling after. I know to begin with within our communities we need to stop shaming people for going to a community college to being with (this still happens unfortunately).
Community colleges remain the stepping-stone to post-secondary education for so many of us in the Chicanx/Latinx community as 48 percent of us attend a community college according to the Pew Hispanic Research Center. This is higher percentage than any other group.
I know what the numbers say, but numbers never tell the whole story. So what can be done to ensure more of students go on and do well in school?
Support. Support. Support.
I remember how in my first year of community college I was placed on academic probation and dismissal. I was kicked out of community college. I remember years later in graduate school hearing at a conference statistics saying that if a student ends up on academic probation they have a 75 percent chance of failure, when I heard that I also heard a 25 percent chance of success. I asked the researcher next how many students come back after being dismissed, the researchers responded “There are no numbers on that, it’s basically impossible…” I laughed because I told them how I was on dismissal and it wasn’t impossible.
In education, be it K-12 or Higher Ed so much is based on numbers, time to degree or how many years we spend on a particular goal. The numbers become the only ways in which we measure success. Whether those numbers are in years to a degree, a GPA, or a standardized test score, but we must ask, what do they really measure. Do they measure brilliance? Do they measure life experience? Do they measure whether or not someone is “deserving” of support? In some instances and from my experience, I say yes because of the ways in which meritocracy and elitism is reinforced in academia. Numbers and prestige mixed together determine our opportunities. Schools, departments, and even our own professors have already pre-determined the focus, decided look at the numbers, and they decide how resources will be divided.
My curiosity behind how we define success and achievement in U.S. higher education is what led me to redefine it in my dissertation from the lived experiences of Latinx community college students. I thought about how if we (people who work or are students in HE) can’t even agree on what achievement and success is to particular populations then how we will even know what the goal is and what success looks like and not just in terms of obtaining a diploma, but along the journey to get one. Sometimes that journey is short which makes true on rare occasions that community colleges are 2-year schools, but that is not reality and hasn’t been for a while and we need to stop shaming students for taking longer, detours, breaks, or different pathways along the way. We need to stop judging students based on where they started, but encourage them to celebrate. We need to celebrate together how far we have collectively traveled on this journey both personally and academically. This celebration at the end of the day is the fuel that will motivate and let a student see, they are not alone. To students who think they are struggling against time or numbers: forget the numbers, keep going. Just keep going, at your own pace, sometimes slow, sometimes fast, it doesn’t matter. You are brillant and you’ve already made it so far.