One afternoon during my second year of teaching, I took my students on a tour of my alma mater, New York University. I had been hyping the trip for weeks, excited to introduce them to a college in their hometown. In fact, for many of my students, it would be their first college visit in general.
I knew this would be an educational experience for them. Yet I had no idea I would learn so much from the trip, as well.
The minute we hit the unfamiliar numbered streets, my students became wide-eyed. “Don’t lose me, Miss!” one of my students cried out, playfully holding onto my arm. I knew that she was only half-joking.
When we disembarked the train at Astor Place and climbed the stairs, I proudly introduced them to the Village. The students gazed up at the high-rise buildings and looked at the congested streets, clearly confused. For a while, no one spoke. Then one of my students said, “This is the Village? Where’s the trees?”
It took me a while to understand her question, and then it hit me: She was expecting a village. She was looking for the rolling hills and quaint homes you might see in a history textbook or a movie about a small town. I was shocked. How could my students be so surprised by Greenwich Village—a neighborhood in their native city, only a subway ride away?
I quickly realized that my students had much to learn, not only about the city but college as well. They were surprised by common city sites (“Look, even the buses have different numbers!”), university rules (“If you get into a fight you can get expelled!?”), college life (“The dining halls are all you can eat!”) and the demographics of the area (“There’s a lot more white people down here!”). Although it’s common to feel excited and shocked by some elements of college life, at a certain point, this lack of knowledge becomes overwhelming.
In a society that increasingly requires higher education for most careers, students must be exposed to aspects of college life before they arrive on campus. One way to accomplish that goal is through early college programs that allow students to earn credits ahead of schedule. As a first-generation college graduate myself, these programs played an important role in preparing me for the education I would receive down the road.
Preparation for college, however, is more than just courses and naming homerooms after universities. Every time I joined a friend’s family for dinner in high school, I was questioned about my future plans. Their parents asked me about my goals, analyzed my choices and suggested courses of action. My friends lived and breathed college for most of their lives. Like my students, I had much to learn, but many of my questions were answered by my high school peer group. This allowed me to approach college more prepared than if I had grown up beyond the reach of their conversations.
My students will not likely be surrounded by this kind of college culture, so it is our job as educators to ensure they are just as ready as any middle-class student. They must be ready for the hurdles inherent in the application process and the coursework ahead. Yes, it is about college prep courses, but it is also more than that.
I hope that we are closer to getting this right for our kids. Last year my brother visited the school where I teach. My students questioned him about many things. One of my sixth-grade students confidently asked him, “Where are you going to go to college?” My brother shrugged his shoulders because, as a high school junior, he did not know yet where he would be accepted. The sixth-grade student was shocked by his answer. She slowly shook her head and reprimanded him, demanding that he figure it out soon.
Hopefully we have created a culture in which our students will live and breathe college, preparing themselves like my wealthier peers. Only time will tell.