At the Intersection of Success and Poverty

Life realities.


January 25, 2018
  • We expect applicants to take the most demanding schedule available to them.
  • There are more suicide attempts, students cutting themselves, more hospitalizations, more cases of anorexia and bulimia, every year.
  • It makes sense that students work hard to go to college to achieve stability, and it is tragic that many fail to complete degrees because they cannot escape poverty long enough to focus on their studies.
  • Fundamentally, financial aid must be reformed to address the real price of college, which cannot be calculated without factoring in food and shelter. Living expenses are educational expenses.
  • After all, it’s impossible to learn when you’re starving.


These quotes come from two separate articles.  

The first two are from an article at Inside Higher Ed, “Are Colleges Pushing Students to Do Too Much in High School?” and the last three from Sara Goldrick-Rab at The New York Times, “It’s Hard to Study if You’re Hungry.” At first glance, one might think these cases refer to students from radically different worlds in our increasingly bifurcated society of haves and have-nots. However, my thoughts immediately went to the students situated at the intersection of these two worlds: the high-achieving students who live in poverty and are trying to get as many AP credits as possible in an attempt to reduce the overall cost of college. They are often trying to shave off a year of college tuition and fees and living expenses. Many in higher education believe that this “shortcut” is not optimal for students. We want students to get the academic and developmental benefits of a full-time residential experience. However, what we want and what is possible are not always aligned.

Let's get back to those high-achieving teens living in poverty. This is the world I see on a daily basis. I live in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston, and my 12-year-old son just started seventh grade at Boston Latin School, a public school in Boston. Students who live with hunger and homelessness and are taking demanding academic schedules are at BLS. These kids are living in poverty, working  incredibly hard, and filled with promise.They are living in a food and shelter insecure world and they are taking the most difficult academic courses available to them. They are the ones I want to address in this conversation. I would argue that the pressures they face are different, and likely far beyond those who exist solely in the first group, those who often have the privilege of wealth and do not worry about when they will be able to eat again. The expectations put upon the students who live at the intersection of academic success and poverty are not just expectations for themselves but also for their families, their racial and ethnic groups, their countries of origin, and much much more. These students represent the hopes and dreams of so many who are supporting them, so many who have made sacrifices to help them get where they are. The pressures on them are immense. (I won't even go into the fact that we now have the added craziness of deportations of so many of them, or the daily slurs they must endure from the formal leaders of our country.)

For these students, failure is not an option. Their families are counting on them to succeed, yet often are not aware of how to support them, nor are they in a position to support them. These students struggle to find their identities as young adults consistently transitioning between their daily home realities, or hiding those realities, and the world into which they hope to gain entry. These students are also often the caretakers of their families, effectively managing their households, as the adults in their lives work multiple jobs to maintain basic necessities.

I would argue that a demanding schedule and one's ability to meet it are directly in relation to one's level of food and housing security. If I am worrying about where and when my next meal will come from, how can I possibly take and do well in 5 AP classes in one semester? The exceptionalism of these young people is not the rule, and too often they are held up as examples that policy makers use to cut funding. It goes something like this: “Hey, if Jackie can live in a homeless shelter and exist on subsistence meals and still pull straight A's in her 5 AP classes then maybe nothing is broken.”  (For those in doubt, I would recommend reading up on the limits of grit and why there is no grit curriculum.)

Rather than using the students in these success stories to punish the rest, I would ask us to talk to these folks. Who are these students and what do they recommend we do? They are succeeding against all odds. I would trust my tax dollars with them before I would trust them with so many others. The solutions need to come from those who so intimately experience these challenges on a daily basis, and I would argue that the solutions we create for K-12 should inform the solutions that we develop and implement for higher ed. These challenges often accompany the students as they transition into college and, while they may be new to us, the challenges are not always new to them.

In a climate of discrimination and increased deportations, building trust and allowing for anonymity will be key. There are no safe zones. High pressure environments coupled with the typical stress associated with the teenage development years, and constant navigation of the responsibilities within their “real world” and the “outside world” and personae that they must adopt to succeed create unimaginable stress and can pose mental health issues for those students. Yes, they develop grit and coping mechanisms, but the mental health costs are often great and these students need support.

A greater challenge for these students might just be that this is their normal, this is the way life has always been. They may not know that we are here to help. These students often accept these realities as the threshold, the door to a better life. They learn to hustle, survive, and thrive regardless of the circumstances. Providing mental health support, or simply adults and mentors with whom these students can talk, will not only provide valuable insights on how best to support them, but will provide outlets for them.



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