Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Affirmative Action...from the voice of the children

High school graduates have been getting ready to enter the next stage of their development...college.

College can be scary and intimidating for just about any kid, but coming from an urban background, it often creates even more challenges.

It doesn't matter how comfortable you think you are in your own skin...it doesn't matter how much your parents have talked to you about treating everyone the same...the college atmosphere is a whole new lesson.

As one of the teenagers sat in my living room after his trip to Austin for UT's freshman orientation, unprompted, he first comment was, "It was strange. I was one of only about 5 other Hispanics there."

I knew what he was talking about...not because of experience...but because I've heard it before from other kids.

He started telling me about one of the talks they heard about Affirmative Action. Then he talked about a White kid who was, evidently, making comments about it to a smaller group of people, "It's not fair. Affirmative Action hurts kids and people like me who are smarter, but don't get in because of a quota."

As the teenager in my living room recounted the story, he expressed to me that he believed in Affirmative Action. "If we didn't have Affirmative Action, how could kids like me, who come from schools that aren't preparing them as well get opportunities to move forward and become better?"

I had to agree with him. I keep thinking of a comment someone made to a blog post on another site (wish I could find it) that said, in essence, that kids who aren't prepared enough could and should go to a trade school. I believe the commenter went on to say something about kids who try to attend college from schools where they are underprepared dumbs down the college education and brings down the other kids (his kids). He thought it would be best if they didn't even enter the college system.

Let me say this up front...I have no problem with trade school. However, more often than not many of our urban children are pushed into trade school because they are under-prepared and because they don't think there is any other choice for them...and many adults (teachers and counselors included) push them in that direction as well by telling them trade school is "probably your best option."

As I talked to this young adult who had worked very hard to be prepared for college...but who knew his high school education simply didn't compare to many other students at UT...he was very discouraged by the White student's attitude about Affirmative Action. He went on to explain to me that his dad had always taught him to be better than he (his dad) is. He plans to teach his own kids that same lesson. But he feels like he's got to have the opportunity to do that. And sometimes that might come because of Affirmative Action.

I am not one to advocate for lowering standards. Quite the contrary, actually. I am not at all advocating that colleges lower their standards or dumb down their curriculum. I want our urban high school students to get the same rigorous education as everyone else. However, what I do realize is that kids who go to college...even if they struggle and barely make it through...will then have raised the bar for their own children.

The experience, knowledge, and resources that a college education offers is invaluable.

The interaction, experience, and connections that Affirmative Action cannot be underestimated.

Let's be honest. Many of us who grew up in White, middle or upper class backgrounds have our own type of Affirmative Action. We had parents and friends of our parents who were connected. We knew people who knew people who could get us into jobs that helped us gain experiences while we were still in high school. As adults we still maintain those types of connections. We know people who can put in a good word for us. There are power in those connections. We may not have been the best person for the job and may not have had the skills needed at first. But we were given a chance and had the opportunity to learn those skills and prove ourselves.

African-American and Hispanic kids from low-income schools and communities deserve that same opportunity.
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