To wrap up 2018 I was lucky enough to give a workshop hosted by LSF at Coolidge High School on the paths and obstacles associated with college and how to overcome them. This includes everything from the alphabet soup of application deadlines to breaking down the importance of grades, standardized test scores, and the Common App essay. The workshop took place shortly after my finals ended and I wanted to ensure test fatigue didn’t weigh down my presentation so I came ready with answers to all the possible questions the students could have. Including the difference between Early Action and Regular Decision, the pros and cons of taking the ACT or the SAT, and how to narrow the ambit of your writing when the question you’re responding to has no right answer. I felt prepared. At the end of all workshops, we leave a few minutes for questions. The first one asked was “what motivates you to stay in college?”. I could have answered this question using statistics that show median income increases for almost every educational rung you climb, but while financial security is something to work towards, for me it is a significant piece of a larger puzzle. The promise of a comfortable salary isn’t what fuels my late nights searching through Khan Academy for the right video or a specific passage to support the thesis of a final paper.
Two things came to mind in my attempt to answer the student's question. My mother's advice and one of my favorite movies, Ex Machina. From a young age, I recall my mother echoing the words of her father who wisely claimed that at the worst of times everything but your education can be stripped of you. This sentiment has been expressed in books as famous as Viktor Frankl’s Man's Search for Meaning where Frankl describes how he was able to liberate himself from the indescribable horrors of the Holocaust because he was the master of his thoughts; in them, he found freedom despite his captivity. Part of the answer then is the belief that a type of liberty associated with education. A liberty that can never be stripped from you once you’ve obtained it.
By this point, you may be asking how a movie starring fellow Guatemalan, Oscar Isaac ties into the college process. For those that haven’t seen the film, it centers around the possibilities and limitations associated with artificial intelligence. In one scene a scenario known as Mary’s Room is described. Mary’s Room is a popular knowledge argument often posed as a variation of the following question: if you were raised in world replete of the color red but had access to a description of the color by individuals who had seen and interacted with red stimuli and one day were allowed to see the color for yourself would you learn something that a description couldn’t have taught you? Applied to the world of first-generation college students Mary’s Room is similar to describing the possibilities college, internships, grad school, fellowships and beyond can offer to someone who hasn’t grown up in a world where they’ve been exposed to examples of success in their community.
How then, can we ingrain in the next crop of students the motivation to reach for their wildest dreams and the self-belief that their choices can directly yield a positive impact on their lives? Breaking Cycle attempts to do this by sharing the stories of successful first-gen students with success being a diverse term as our interviews come from all walks of life. Someone telling you that the world is yours and working hard can get you ahead usually falls on deaf ears, an example has the capacity to leave a lasting impact.
I still remember a phone call I had with my sister during my junior year of high school. It was an October night and she had just started her sophomore year of college. As I was telling her the schools I was thinking of applying to she interrupted me and said: “why not Harvard?”. I don’t remember exactly how the call ended but looking back she wasn’t just suggesting I apply to schools with competitive acceptance rates. She was suggesting I take the last two years of my high school career and go all out. Get the grades, put in the effort, engage in more extracurricular activities, the works. During high school, and a class here and there in college, I enjoyed the privilege of getting by on talent, to have a shot at getting into the schools my sister suggested talent had to be coupled with hard work and in my case it wasn’t. If I chalked up the failure of 18-year-old Alejandro to follow his sister’s advice to laziness that in and of itself would be a lazy action. I wasn’t just lazy, I also didn’t believe in myself. Because I didn’t have self-belief there was no way I would magically be motivated to push myself to my limits and see how far I could go.
The Road map to College I presented at Coolidge High School begins sometime in the summer before students entered their junior year. The reality is that some students feel like they will never get to that starting point because they bear the weight of much more than just a lack of self-belief and motivation. In a couple of weeks, we’ll talk more about exactly what these responsibilities mean and the effects they cause in the lives of students. For now, know that the next time someone you view as having “made it” talks to you about going to your dream school or landing that crazy internship it’s neither crazy or a dream it’s simply what comes next.