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'Balancing Two Worlds'

June 5, 2007

Andrew Garrod, director of teacher education at Dartmouth College, was one of the editors in 1997 of First Person, First Peoples: Native American College Graduates Tell Their Life Stories, a collection of the experiences of students at Dartmouth College. Cornell University Press, which published that collection, has just released two companion volumes: Balancing Two Worlds: Asian American College Students Tell Their Life Stories and Mi Voz, Mi Vida: Latino College Students Tell Their Life Stories.

Garrod is an editor of both new books, as is Robert Kilkenny, executive director of the Alliance for Inclusion and Prevention and a clinical associate in social work at Simmons College. The book about Latino students had a third co-editor, Christina Gómez, an associate professor of sociology and Latino studies at Northeastern Illinois University. The three co-editors responded to questions via e-mail about the new books.

Q: There are many books and reports about the minority experience in higher education. What drew you to the narrative approach?

A: So much of what college students read about the minority experience in the U.S. is sociological in nature and derived from rather sterile empirical research which focuses on the demographic underpinnings of poverty, low achievement, and social pathology, all of which point to the macro-experience of minorities in higher education. Needless to say, most of this work is produced by Caucasian academics with limited first-hand experience of the lives they are describing. As editors, we have attempted to use narrative as a means of bringing the unfiltered minority voice to a first-hand, subjective description of the experience of growing up as a minority in this country. Narrative in the form of autobiography avoids the pitfall of understanding the minority experience through the lens of statistical medians. Instead, the lived stories in these books essentially cut out the empirical middleman and demonstrate the variation of experience in coming of age as a minority today. The stories illustrate how simply making it to a selective university does not entirely mitigate the disadvantages the autobiographers have had to overcome. That is, the unique obstacles to success as a minority do not disappear with entrance into an elite college; they simply take on different forms -- as they will with each major life transition: career, family, and adult identity. We hope that the use of autobiographical stories adds vibrancy and a human dimension that will allow the reader to connect on a more personal level to the minority experiences contained in these volumes, as well as inspiring other young students to view education as a real option.

Q: How typical do you think the stories are of members of these ethnic groups in higher education as a whole (as opposed to those who enroll at Dartmouth)?

A: It may be ironic, but elite colleges with large endowments are able to provide more generous need-blind admissions policies that enable them to attract students from a more diverse ethnic and financial background than less selective and less wealthy colleges, which translates to Dartmouth’s being no different than any given school and even allowing for a wider panoply of students. There is no single representative sample of minority college students, but we have made an effort to recruit minority students whose life histories are diverse in terms of socioeconomic status, prior educational opportunities, and other life circumstances. We think that these stories reflect the fact that minority students in U.S. colleges come from both middle class and poor families and have had few prior education advantages, while still touching on universal themes for minorities in higher education, regardless of prestige or status of the institution they attend. In this way, we hope these stories can counter stereotypes and easy categorization of the life experiences of a non-existent “typical” minority college student in the U.S. today.

Q: Conflicting family expectations are a big issue in both books. What conclusions do you draw from that?

A: Conflicting family expectations are almost synonymous with the adolescent experience itself, but such difference become especially poignant and complex in first and even second generation immigrants. The struggle to form an authentic personal identity that is integrated into a healthy self, and balanced between immigrant and American cultural values can be excruciatingly difficult. This challenge is as old as the American experience itself, made even more difficult than in the past by the dominance of youth culture and American media, usually running counter to the understanding that families and parents have for their children. It is possible that immigrant parents today more strongly resist the “Americanization” of their children due to a perception of the American culture as increasingly coarse and violent. At the same time, many of these same parents (and non-immigrant parents as well) might be surprised and heartened to learn from these stories how hard these college students try to find a middle ground that shows deep respect for both the culture and sacrifices of their parents, while also representing their own need to be a part of American culture.

Q: What do you see as the most significant differences between the Latino and Asian students, as well as the Native Americans from your earlier book?

A: Although the editors attempted in both the Latino and Asian-American books to solicit writers from a variety of socioeconomic classes and life circumstances, it would be true to say that cases exploring the impact of poor schooling and challenging family dynamics were more prevalent in the Latino book. In terms of academic achievement, the Asian-American students tended to achieve academically at Dartmouth more consistently at a high level. Probably a greater portion of the Latino students came from large, under-resourced public high schools. Both books discussed above have as their central focus the creation of identity and the exploration of youth culture, as well as the analysis of parental expectations. The Native American book, while exploring what it means to be Native American in the United States today, examines in much greater detail than the other two books the frequently painful transition from home and local community to Dartmouth College. The sense of discontinuity between home and school is far more pronounced in the Native American book. One additional difference is that the writers who were invited to subscribe to the Native American book had a much wider age span than in the other two books. In First Person, First Peoples the writers range in age from 20 to the early 40s, whereas in the other two books all the writers were undergraduates with just one exception.

Q: How might these narratives change the way someone teaches at an elite, predominantly white institution?

A: In a way, our response to your first question explains the value we see to eliciting autobiographical narratives and to teaching them in the classroom. These narratives, we like to think, would prove invaluable in an adolescent development class or in any sociology of education course. Too often, courses (mostly taught by Caucasians) employ the analysis of theory and empirical research findings. What the close reading of rich and reflective autobiographies allows is the understanding of the phenomenology of the life experience -- an experience which may be very different from that of the reader. We are all trapped in our own unique bodies, making it challenging for us to understand the experience of those who superficially (by race, ethnicity, sex, sexual orientation) seem dissimilar. The scrutiny of narratives allows for an expansion of understanding and an increased empathy for the experiences of those whose story is often not told. We would add, finally, that many of the minority essays we have collected are distinguished by possessing a “double vision”: the challenge of being both an American and a member of a minority group compels these writers to reflect in subtle ways on the culture that surrounds them and on the way they negotiate their own destinies as both an American and as a hyphenated-American.

 

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