The New York Times recently published a fascinating op-ed piece titled, “Why poor kids struggle at elite colleges.” The column was authored by a NYC teacher, Vicki Madden, who 35 years ago immigrated to the City from “hardscrabble” Montana.
Madden’s main point is that, although kids from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are admitted to elite colleges in depressingly low numbers (5% are from the bottom quartile; 14% are from the bottom two quartiles), these kids can handle the academic challenges, but they have immense difficulty with leaving their way of life behind:
- But once those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds arrive on campus, it’s often the subtler things, the signifiers of who they are and where they come from, that cause the most trouble, challenging their very identity, comfort and right to be on that campus…. Hardest was the awareness that my own experiences were not only undervalued but often mocked, used to indicate when someone was stupid or low-class…. To stay four years and graduate, students have to come to terms with the unspoken transaction: exchanging your old world for a new world, one that doesn’t seem to value where you came from.
Madden then explains why she was able to navigate the distance from old world to new world:
- Perhaps because I came from generations of people who had left their families behind and pushed west from Ireland, West Virginia and Montana, I suffered few pangs at the idea of setting out for a new land with better opportunities. I wanted the libraries, summer houses and good wine more than anything that I then valued about my own history…. Being young, I didn’t understand, believing myself immune to the idea that any gain might entail a corresponding loss. I was keen to exchange my Western hardscrabble life for the chance to be a New York City middle-class museumgoer. I’ve paid a price in estrangement from my own people, but I was willing. Not every 18-year-old will make that same choice, especially when race is factored in as well as class.
All of this rings true to me, as I still remember the difficulty I had in moving from being a practical small-town farm kid to a big-city urban/intellectual guy.
You can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy.