The barriers that keep underrepresented students from succeeding in school and moving toward college are real. We use the term “underrepresented” in education as a way of accounting for the many groups of students who go on to college in fewer numbers. In science, underrepresented specifically means students of color, girls and students from low socioeconomic backgrounds. As a student, I was underrepresented and have used my voice tirelessly to speak for this group. The barriers are real and I am thankful to be in a position to work toward removing them.
Barriers that continue to keep our underrepresented students from pursuing college are many. Money, of course, is a main one, but there are so many hidden barriers that people often don’t consider. Maintaining the drive and focus against the stacked odds and not having access to institutional knowledge (knowing how to maneuver through the logistics to get from high school to college) are other barriers that disenfranchise our underrepresented students.
I started high school as a new student from out of state. I lived with my aunt and uncle and their family because my parents were incapable of caring for my siblings and I. My parents were busy focusing on either their own addictions and/or recovery. My younger ten-year old brother was also at an aunt and uncle’s place in Montana while my older eighteen-year old brother had already dropped out of high school before his sophomore year was complete and had been living on his own since.
My high school was the seventh school I had attended. Because of the constant moving from state to state, between divorced parents and family members, my educational experience was very fragmented. Those who had the benefit of remaining in one system have never had to put together the pieces in the way that I did. Even though I remained in one school for my high school experience, my foundation was still shaky. I will say that although there were barriers to me succeeding in college, I still had a lot going for me. I was smart, I had a loving home during high school and I very much wanted a life different than that I was most familiar; a life of addiction and dysfunction. I had enough good elements in my life to plod through and make college a viable option, but there are many kids who do not. I think, “there but by the grace of God,” and this motivates me.
We lived in Florence, Oregon, a struggling mill town on the coast that suffered extreme economic hardships during the years I lived there. My uncle worked at the mill and lost his job when the mill shut down during my junior year of high school. Rather than leave the town immediately to find work elsewhere, someone, for the first time in my life, put my well being first and decided to stay in the town until I finished high school. My uncle took any odd job he could find, including spending entire days in the thick coastal forests foraging for Chanterelle mushrooms to sell to buyers who represented the high-end restaurants and markets from the cities. The pay off was small and the work incredibly hard but he put in a backbreaking work daily to provide for his struggling family. We relied, as much as we could on being self sufficient- gardening, canning and hunting/fishing, but I do recall receiving free processed cheese product and other staples from some source. The funny thing was, because we had a home and always had three meals a day, this level of poverty was still eons richer than I had been at other times in my life.
We all contributed as much as we could. I always had an after school job that paid for all of my personal provisions including all of my clothes, school expenses, personal expenses (make up, tampons, hair cuts, long distance phone calls to my mom or brothers…), sport expenses, prom/homecoming, summer program expenses, after school college classes, car insurance, gas, and trying to save whatever was left over for college. I made my own prom dress (and wedding dress) and learned to be the skilled thrift shopper that I am this day. Understanding the sacrifice that my family was making for me, I tried to not be an additional expense. I was a cheerleader my sophomore year of high school, but quit because the cost associated with the camps and uniforms was prohibitively high. We had to make choices. I worked at slew of places, sometimes working at two jobs at a time and in between jobs, babysat regularly. Most days after school and practice, I worked. Needing to work throughout high school, to contribute to the family is another hardship unique to our underrepresented students. It is hard and tiring and maintaining focus is difficult. I can see how it is easy to give up.
So what kept me focused? First of all, I recognized I didn’t have a lot of options. I had no family to fall back on, no safety net. From an early time, I knew I was it. School was my sanctuary (besides a handful of teachers who nearly broke my spirit). I knew that an education would move me through this place that I was stuck. That’s not to say that school was always a picnic, I struggled. I struggled with the gaps in my schooling, I struggled with being the new girl nearly every school year, and I struggled with keeping a distance between my life at school and my life at home. The drugs and alcohol that were a part of life at home and the lack of parental influence affected me. I recognize that I had two viable options to move through this place, I could escape through the hard work or I could escape through a life of drugs and alcohol. My path zigzagged back and forth through these two options.
Things that kept me focused in school were the classes and teachers that kept me interested. I took every choir class and every science class my high school offered. My favorite class, and probably the one that made me decide to be a scientist, was a Med Tech class I took my sophomore year with Ms. Bailey. I recall we spent a large amount of time analyzing our own urine and blood (back in the days before body fluids was an issue). Learning how to get past the embarrassment of bringing a cup of your own pee to class every day, as a sophomore in high school, is a feat. We boiled the urine to separate the liquids from the solids and for days endured the smell of urea in the air as you rounded the science wing hallway. We applied all of the same tests the lab does when you pee in a cup for your doctor. It was a lesson in humility, humanity and humor. It was also incredibly fascinating. The stuff I was learning was about me and it was applicable to life.
Buzzwords in education today swirl around our head: flipped classrooms, blended learning, voice and choice, small communities…. all good ideas, but nothing works if the students aren’t interested in the first place. We have to start with something that connects with the students. Usually it’s a teacher who knows how to deliver. In science, I believe it’s about getting up and doing science. Students connect with what they are doing. Students love lab experiences. In my classroom, lab is about putting on good music and mingling with purpose. Students roam the classroom connecting with each other, connecting with the lab ware and piecing together an understanding. Students need to be up, moving, talking, and getting into the thick of it. As a science teacher I balk when someone describes how using more technology in my classroom will increase student performance. Anything that moves my students out of the lab and puts them in front of a screen is in the wrong direction. That’s not to say that technology doesn’t have a place in my classroom, but I will choose lab time over screen time any day. In science, all educational buzzwords pale to doing science. Connecting students to a positive lab experience is beneficial to all of our students. No student is at a disadvantage in doing science, all students are equal. Connecting to students’ curiosity keeps them focused and coming back for more.
Besides doing science in science classes, I think there is much that a school can do to promote student interest and equity. As I stated above, I took all of the choir and science classes that our school offered, if they had more I would have taken them. We need to promote student choice and voice across our curriculum. Allowing students to access ANY course they want, as long as it falls within their requirements for graduation is a must. Sometimes a course might be a reach, due to a student’s prior experience. Taking an honors chemistry course coming from a regularly-laned biology course for example, might be a reach for some students, but the idea that they have the right to try, is crucial to student choice and voice. Safety nets should be put in place so that students can move in and out of lanes easily. Mixed level classes (regular/honors) promote student choice and equity. With choice comes responsibility. Students should know that there is a commitment and responsibility on their part if they choose to “jump” lanes. Students have to own this commitment and schools need to hold students accountable for their choices. Student’s responsibilities include seeking out assistance if they are struggling (this does not mean getting a tutor, this means seeking out the teacher for help), keeping up with the additional work associated with making a lane change and being self reflective enough to know if the lane change is working or not. Letting students take the courses that they want, breadth and depth, is an important way to promote student interest and equity. We should not be putting up barriers to student choice and voice, we should empower them with responsible decision making.
Lastly, if we are striving for equity for all of our students, it is imperative that all students have access to institutional knowledge to help with the jump from high school to college. We call students who are the first in their family to go to college, first generation students. I am a first generation student. My mother actually dropped out of high school because she was pregnant and she and my dad married before her graduation date. I was fortunate to move through a system that many fewer institutional barriers when I first entered college in 1985. Today’s system is much thicker institutional knowledge and bureaucracy. Negotiating the financial requirements of FAFSA, independent scholarship sources, the common application and the minimum requirements challenges even the experienced. Knowing how these pieces fit together requires explanation and guidance. Our schools need to make sure that all of our students have access to this institutional knowledge. Many schools offer guidance or advisory programs that walk students through this information but they must understand that some students will not have the support system at home with which to have guiding conversations and make important decisions. The guidance needs to come from the school. On this point, we will never reach equity, because the institutional knowledge provided from a parent who has been to college will always be greater than what a student can get from school, but at least schools can strive to close this gap.
I am privileged to be able to work do the work that benefits underrepresented students like myself. Breaking barriers or at least making them less is my classroom and in my school is my goal. I want science to be flooded with the voices of underrepresented women, students of color and students from low socioeconomic status. Science needs these voices because their silence only widens the gap and contributes to their disenfranchisement. Science needs these voices to speak to why our recent water debacle occurred in Flint MI and not Palo Alto CA and to speak to how the recent defunding of the EPA will result in a wider gap and the silencing of more voices. Science needs these voices.