Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Paradox of Being a Low Income Black College Graduate

I graduated from college three weeks ago. (That's me in the picture!)

I know that I am experiencing a barrage of emotions and thoughts. I know that one of those feelings is annoyance.

I am annoyed by the two emerging hegemonic conceptions of college.

There's the idea that college is the great equalizer and the ticket for anybody (regardless of initial socioeconomic class or race) to have access to the middle class. Then there are those who argue that college is no longer worth the money and time and college graduates are in an awful position and would have been better off never going.

The fact is that neither of these positions are correct. At least not for college grads like myself.

I entered college with two main risk factors: I am Black and I am low income. These risk factors mean that I was statistically less likely to enter straight into a four year university, and more likely to matriculate but never graduate and certainly not within four years. Statistically, I am more likely to be above the national average in debt and I am more likely to be unemployed or underemployed after college.

So college is definitely not the great equalizer. Recently, there has been some press coverage about a new study which shows that Black college grads are twice as likely to be unemployed in comparison to their white counterparts. Similar statistics can be cited for women, low income folks, and other marginalized groups. So college definitely does not have equal results for everybody. The results one gets from obtaining a degree certainly depends on their social location.

And at the same time: college is perhaps even more of a useful step towards financial stability for low income people of color than it is for middle class white folks. This is because low income people of color have a lower starting point. Therefore, a college degree is used to reach the same success a middle class white person might have had access to without completing college. This is due to the compounding results of generations of racial and class discrimination.

While college is more expensive than ever (and this is especially felt by low income folks) it is not exactly pointless (or as I've seen some argue: detrimental) if it's the difference between poverty and being lower middle class. The difference between being part of the working poor and part of the working and surviving.

While this may not be impressive for privileged groups who have for generations taken for a granted that a college degree (of any area of study and any GPA) will equal a ticket to the solid middle class, it is impressive for folks like me. During my final semester of college, I was offered a job with an income close to that of my parents combined. Not impressive for those who come from upper middle class families but impressive for me.

I am blessed. I am thankful for my degree. Not particularly thankful to the institution itself. But more thankful to the individuals who helped me navigate the institution. However, I have no regrets about where I obtained my degree from because I know that the problems I had there I would have had nearly anywhere.

My college experience was mired by racism and classism as the same can be said for low income Black students on practically any college campus. I watched students I entered with four years ago drop out. Sometimes not solely due to money, but also due to the oppressive environment.

College can be rough for people like me: people who have to hold down multiple jobs while being full time students, people who deal with micro-aggressions all day every day, people who are criminalized on their campuses or assumed to not belong, people whose intelligence are constantly questioned. College can be rough for anybody but these factors exacerbate already existing difficulties.

And then to exit this experience knowing that what there is to be gained is statistically not equal to middle class white men is disheartening. But not enough to make me regret ever going through with it.

That's the paradox. I know that college was racist and classist while I was there. I know that racism and classism will limit my opportunities now that I'm done. And yet, I know I would be in a far worse predicament had I not gone any at all.

I was selected to deliver the commencement address for my college. My college is 163 years old but I was only the second Black student speaker and the first Black woman. I knew that my commencement speech needed to resonate with all of the graduates and their families and friends. And at the same time I was aware that my experience did not necessarily align itself with the dominant college student narrative.

Not because what I did during college was abnormal. But because the stakes were always different. And because the pressure was always different. The circumstances were different.

I stayed up late nights studying like many other college students. I attended class like other students. I participated in Greek life and other co-curricular organizations. I seemed "normal."

And I guess that is the best way to sum up my college experience: I did what was "normal" under the "not normal" circumstances of being low income and Black. And by God's grace here I am.

And I'm excited for the future. Especially since my immediate future consists of a much needed break from school before I pursue graduate studies. And I'm also ever vigilant and wary. And ready to deconstruct any notion of the college graduate experience that simplifies or erases the challenges of those who are marginalized.

I can go so far as to say that it angers me when I see people say that college is a waste of time no matter what justification they may have. It makes me angry because I know that college is the only way out of poverty for so many low income kids of color. It's widely understood in the Black community that if you can't play ball or entertain then you best stay in school. It's a funny saying with a somber truth.

And the economic recession or the rise in college tuition hasn't made this saying outdated. If anything, it has made it more of a truth.

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  1. this post exactly summed up my college experience. i stumbled upon your blog a couple months ago and i've enjoyed every post. keep blogging!

  2. College can be rough for people like me: people who have to hold down multiple jobs while being full time students, people who deal with micro-aggressions all day every day


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