College means not being…

…a fuck up.  (At least I left the profanity out of the title.  I found this one in my drafts folder from several months ago, so I decided I might as well post it.)

One of the problems with growing up poor and with relatively few opportunities is that you really can’t fuck up anywhere along the line.  If I ever have the guts, I’m going to post a more TMI description of my childhood, but the reasons I was able to go to college were:

a) I was a genius when I was a young child and I managed to stay at a high enough level to do well enough on standardized tests to win a National Merit Scholarship.  This despite being in a terrible rural school district which sent high school graduates to college at a rate one-third of the state average (even less for my graduating class).

b) Some commies in the Federal government passed the Higher Education Act in 1965 which led to the Pell Grant program (or “poor grant” as I always liked to call it).

These two financial aid sources provided about $2000 each per year, just enough to go to the cheap midwestern public university and live in a crappy dorm.  I’m not really sure if I could have went to a small liberal arts college or something like that on anything like a full-ride scholarship.  (I did have a more or less full-ride offer from a “compass point” type of school in my state due to a math/physics competition in which I participated.)

I had essentially no guidance available for how to pick a college or university.  I received promotional materials from something like 100 schools, but they might as well have been written in hieroglyphics.  One school actually called me and tried to sell me on them.  I only applied to the school where I matriculated.  If the essay requirements are anything like they are now, there’s no way I could have gotten into an elite school anyway.  Not that my writing skills were bad, but what the hell would I have written?  There’s not so much to tell when you grow up a poor hick.  No fucking way good schools wanted to hear about that.  I sure as shit wouldn’t have been able to get any good advice from anybody around me on writing a good essay.  Of course, all of that probably made me a lousy candidate to go to an elite undergraduate school anyway; I would have probably benefited greatly, but maybe not the other way around.  After all, 6 times as many people who grow up in the top quartile by household income in the U.S. graduate from college as compared to those of us who are bottom feeders in the bottom quartile.  You can’t get that number without some “filtering” of poor students away from the best schools (financially, culturally, preparation issues, etc.).

[I looked it up, and the current requirements for winning a National Merit Scholarship include not only writing an essay, but having great extracurricular and volunteer activities and all that bullshit that can’t happen when you live in poverty in the middle of fucking nowhere and go to a shitty school.  I honestly don’t remember what I had to do to win a scholarship beyond smoking the PSAT/NMSQT and SAT, but I’m having a hard time believing I would have been awarded a scholarship if they took into account non-objective measures.  Also, the highly subjective writing skills test didn’t exist back then, just the verbal and math tests.]

Anyway, I’m both impressed by and absolutely appalled by stories of people who were fuck-ups in their first (or even second!) year of college, but turned things around and ended up with a PhD and a successful career in academia.  Impressed because I’m sure it’s challenging to turn things around after getting some C’s and D’s (and even F’s; holy shit!).  Appalled because I’m pretty sure I never would have finished college if I had done something stupid like that.  I don’t know exactly what the GPA requirements were for keeping my Pell Grant and/or National Merit Scholarship, but I can’t believe they would have been low enough to be consistent with some of the stories I’ve read.

I never felt like I had the luxury of being a fuck up, ever.  But, of course, that means that I felt like I could never take any real chances in college.  I stuck with my science degree program, gutted it out, and mostly relied upon my intellect to succeed.  (With hard work, of course, but pretty much everybody has to work fairly hard to succeed in college, even the people born with a silver spoon up their nose.)  I was fortunate that I made a reasonable choice as to a degree and it was a reasonable educational experience.

However, I’m always a little bothered by people in academia who say that one of the points of college is to take chances and broaden their horizons without recognizing that that action assumes a certain level of privilege that not everybody has.  It’s a nice thought, and realistically I could have taken more chances than I did, but it’s also the case that I was way behind most of my classmates when it came to being prepared for college.  It’s hard to play catch up at the college level when you’ve got one shot and need to finish in 4 years.  And it’s nonsense to think that many, let alone most, schools reward taking chances, especially when it comes to the types of students who are more likely to go to big McUniversities.

Having said that, I guess I took some chances in college.  For instance, even having had no substantive foreign language experience growing up (again, shitty rural school district), I got it in my head to satisfy my 2-semester foreign language requirement in a language with a non-Latin script.  That worked out okay; including a “culture” class I took concerning a country using that script (taught in English), my GPA for the three relevant classes was identical to my overall GPA.  Of course, that ended up being worthless and I should have taken a “normal” language which I might have had some chance of using.  There may have been some hubris at work in my deciding not taking an “easy” language especially after my experience in the freshman dorm at a major party school with low admission standards.

Hmmm, I guess maybe that doesn’t count as “taking a chance”, but it’s the best thing I can come up with.  I also “took a chance” when I more or less stopped going to a particularly annoying math class, but paid for that with a C+, easily my worst grade.  I actually did something similar for a Western Civ class, but it was a freshman level class in a big lecture hall that I was taking as a senior to complete a Gen Ed requirement.  I didn’t have to work too hard to pull a B+ even after receiving a mid-term deficiency report.  (The same semester I had a course in the Anthropology department which was far more interesting and I managed an A in that, so it wasn’t like I was blowing off all of my Gen Ed classes.)

I’ve probably taken the “I can’t be a fuck up” concept too much to heart, but I suspect that’s a common theme for people who “succeed” from less-than-desirable backgrounds, whether economic, racial/ethnic, or gender.  If I had been able to take some chances, I might have actually amounted to something, but then again I might have totally crashed and burned.  Interestingly, I now work at an institution where the students are almost all comfortably middle-class and occasionally above, there really aren’t a lot of chances available to be taken, and the consequences of fucking up (in the academic sense) aren’t particularly severe, unless they keep doing it and end up graduating with a low GPA.

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