"What’s the worst thing that could happen if you succeeded?”
I ask this question in my College 101 class, a class for students new to college to acculturate them to college and how it’s different, and I let the class fall into an uncomfortable silence as the students reflect on what to write. Not answering isn't thinking hard enough. This question always seems to take students a little aback – they’re used to hearing about how they’re going to screw up their lives if they fail, how they’re going to be broke and living in misery if they don’t graduate from college, and it invariably just makes students feel infantilized in that same way that people who are depressed feel when told they should just stop being so depressed sometime. But many of our students, if asked in an open question about this, might come to terms with the idea that there are some issues besides academic ones holding them back.
“I mean, I always hoped this wouldn’t happen, but it did.” Reginald was the first in his family to graduate High School, let alone graduate College. He got a degree in Engineering and, when I talked to him last, was working downtown and making more money in a month than his mother made in a year. I’m happy I still see him about once a year or so and we still talk online from time to time after being out of my class for 6 years. Sometimes Developmental Educators have to take it as faith that their students do well for themselves; Reggie reminds me that I’ve at least helped one student achieve his goals. But sometimes Reggie talks about what happened to him on the way to his success.
Reggie discovered quickly that his degree rescued him from, in his words, “an unsatisfying environment”. But he paid costs, as well, and he remembers first realizing it one year at Thanksgiving. With his new income, Reggie bought a new car a few days previous, thinking he would like to drive to his grandma’s house because he thought his extended family would feel proud of what he had done so young. But his cousins, aunts, and uncles were coldly distant to him – in retrospect he says this had been happening for awhile, but he only realized it when he bought a new car – and joked with him about how he was too good for them now. But Reggie wasn’t laughing, and over the next year comments were routinely framed at Reggie’s expense without even an attempt at humor. It was clear – Reggie had no idea what he had done to mark him as suddenly being arrogant and above his humble upbringings, but Reggie became an outsider at extended family outings, and was made the butt of cruel jokes about what he and his money could now do over social media. He tried as hard as he could but he said his family said, when Reggie talked about putting Christmas presents on layaway, that he was “phony” – which he was, because he no longer did.
Soon, after realizing that his friends were imposing on him more and more (they did in college, he said, but “there wasn’t much to impose on”) his friends from his neighborhood and his high school were reacting to him in the same way. Additionally, while Reggie was working 50 hours a week or more, his friends were working less and spending their time not working around each other, strengthening their bond and experiences
He made new friends – work friends, mostly, since he worked long hours, as did they – but he found that they weren’t like him either. They were friends of convenience as opposed to friends developed through long years together, and he found that he wasn’t quite “one of them” either. His work friends, to the last one, all had vastly different experiences than he did – they spent frivolously and always seemed to just always have more, spent their vacations hiking (Reggie didn’t see the point of hiking and thought camping was ridiculous, something I, as an avid hiker and camper, tried to convince him to try sometime). His friends bonded over the Bears with him and how awful the Bears always were, or how much they liked it when a colleague was away on work, but he didn’t enjoy his time with them much. He also thought that they didn’t enjoy spending time with him.
Reggie has since become engaged to a girl he met on social media, a girl he says his family is nice to but doesn’t really like. He doesn’t understand how to invest money and feels like going on vacations is more stressful than relaxing, so he doesn’t.
“I like who I am right now. But I paid a price for it all, and it wasn’t in tuition.”
This isn’t to say that a college education isn’t a worthwhile goal – far from it. But sometimes students know that their academic and financial success doesn’t always make them feel very successful. For some, a degree means creating separation from them and their families. For others, it means taking a risk or giving up and old life - not just in financial terms - and sometimes, in the words of a wise teacher I know, "sometimes we cling to the things that hold us back".
Part II - To Be Continued