Phi Beta Cons

A Person, Not an Ethnicity

The Chronicle of Higher Education has a poignant story about a young man, jailed (that is, in juvenile detention) at age 14, without any stable family, living in gangland Chicago, who gets a scholarship to go to Connecticut College. A reporter spent time throughout Tavaris Sanders’ freshman year taking photos of him and his environment (both at school and in Chicago). Tavaris subsequently commented on the photos, creating a photographic essay.

This article (which is available to non-subscribers) offers a helpful perspective on recent campus protests – a reminder that everyone has a personal story. People are individuals, not just members of groups or “ethnicities.”

This young man was not a typical student by any measure. He had “turned around” his life after he came out of juvenile detention; he had a mentor and he became a good student (but at what must have been a miserable school, since he never had to write more than a one-page paper). He was able, but just barely, to do the work of a freshman at Connecticut.

Because he didn’t come in as a “star,” he didn’t have friends at first and, presumably because of the contrast in cultures, he was either shunned by or he distanced himself from others (probably both), especially whites. He comments about his first week, “I’m from Chicago, so like, where I come from we speak slang. The way we speak is not as proper as theirs. So when I talked, they never understood what I was saying.”

It’s a personal story and I found it heart-rending. I’m not sure that it has any policy implications except a point we are often making – that bringing unprepared students into a fairly demanding college can make life very hard for them.

That doesn’t mean college is not for Tavaris; he has innate ability and determination. But he was cheated by poor education in his early life, as well as by family desertion and a grim environment, and those make his chances of success very low. Perhaps another place, such as a community college, would have been better for him.

In any case, I wish him well.

Jane S. ShawJane S. Shaw retired as president of the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in 2015. Before joining the Pope Center in 2006, Shaw spent 22 years in ...

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