By Allyson Chavez
“People like you don’t go to schools like those,” my guidance counselor told me when I shared with her my dream of applying to Harvard. I was already reluctant to admit that I wanted to attend a top school, and my counselor’s response only further discouraged me from dreaming big.
Growing up in East Harlem, N.Y., I had always wanted to attend an elite college. But in that conversation with my counselor, my dream nearly evaporated as the reality of my surroundings set in.
Unfortunately, my problem is not unique. Across the nation, highly qualified low-income students are disproportionately not applying to top schools, according to research at the Brookings Institute. Top colleges with large endowments fail to communicate with low-income students about the amount of financial aid available to them. This causes these students to use community colleges and other public institutions as an economic safe haven.
But I believe the main issue lies within high schools in low-income areas. At my school, the college readiness—how prepared high school students are to succeed in college—stands at 6.5 percent of the graduating class, according to SchoolBook.
When high-achieving qualified students find themselves in such a low-achieving environment, those students are thwarted from applying to elite schools because they are held to the low standards of the environment they’ve grown up in.
In the weeks after the conversation with my counselor, I asked myself what was wrong with me. Then I realized that I was not the problem.
As I look around my school, I see teachers who are demoralized and frustrated after decades of being forced to teach to the test—in our case, Regents exams that don’t prepare students for college. Their passion for teaching has been squeezed out of them by the education system, and some are even resentful of high-achieving students.
When students lack the support system that they need to succeed, they are more likely to lose confidence in themselves. As a result, students who strive to attend an elite school are perceived as patronizing and elitist.
When high schools in low-income areas knowingly hinder their high-performing students and prevent them from meeting their full potential, to me this qualifies as structural violence.
To be sure, there are outstanding teachers who try to support their students’ dreams. But they are ostracized, thwarted by the system and sometimes even overshadowed by the other teachers in their school.
I was fortunate to be able to catch a glimpse of a different environment—the kind of environment that I had been deprived of until then. During my sophomore year, an organization called Girls Inc. offered to take me to visit a number of schools including Harvard. I trembled and felt my stomach drop to the floor as I held the permission slip—I was actually going to visit the place I had dreamt about so often. In the days leading up to the trip, I grew increasingly anxious.
When we arrived, I felt an electric vibe pass through me. I was actually walking toward Harvard Yard. The atmosphere, the architecture, the small city feel, the academics—it was all perfect. I made my way to the bookstore and picked up a sweatshirt from the John F. Kennedy School of Government. I remember looking at the price tag and thinking to myself, “60 bucks?” I had only $50, but my trip supervisors gave me the rest of the money, saying, “You should have this, for inspiration and as a reminder.”
In that moment, I felt complete awe. I was able to envision myself in an environment that, instead of pulling me down, wanted to help me grow. My dream was tangible and finally within my grasp.