Thursday, September 18, 2014

Black Achievement

As salaam alaikum,

I was reminded of this while watching a "Key and Peele" episode in which they compared black college movies with white college movies. White college movies were all about the party and college was a given. Black college movies were all about college as the destination, as if once insurmountable.

I have two cousins doing their studies in my hometown. One is in her first three weeks of graduate school, the other has started as an undergraduate. Both of them had small meltdowns on Facebook over the course of this week, threatening (though purely out of frustration) to drop out of their respective programs.

These are two highly motivated, very intelligent young women who earned their acceptance into their respective programs but who I feel did not have a realistic idea of what they were getting into upon matriculation.

Which is fine. I certainly did not know what I was getting into when I started medical school.

But I recognize something that one of my friends pointed out about black students. I recognize that she made sweeping generalizations and that there is no data, but I found her observations interesting. My friend was a tutor at one of the Harvard residence halls and had students of various ethnicities. She was supposed to be a resource, or at least a gateway to resources for the students. She noticed students of other races and ethnicities either had their own external resources for money and mentorship or they sought her out. Black students, who were the least likely to have outside money or mentors, also did not seek help. Another of my friends, also a tutor, acknowledged the same thing. The two of them believed that this was because, for the black students, college was the destination. They did not plan for the during or the after.

For a lot of black students, college is the destination. Education is the goal, not career.

Though few of these students would admit to matriculating into a school for the sake of college, few of them actually have the tools or insight to apply their education to their career aspiration. And few have the first idea of how to get those tools.

Facebook doesn't help. Facebook for both of my cousins became a place to boast their achievements and make sweeping statements about their broad aspirations, the audience being adoring family and friends who really do admire the ambition but have little to offer. Facebook also became the place of the meltdown, where those same people offer platitudes but no solid mentorship.

I'm not saying that this phenomenon is unique to black students. I'm sure a lot of college students of many backgrounds find themselves in the same place. I'm also not saying it's true of all black college students. But there are some things that ring true for me in my own educational and career trajectory, although, alhamdulillah, I've done well.

But college cannot be the destination. Sometimes, our families, as in black families, only know how to laud college. How's school and how's your grades? That's good, baby.

And that is good, but what are you studying? What classes are you taking for that? Have you been able to shadow or get an internship over the summer for that? How are you using your summers? Who are your mentors? If you don't have any, can you get some? Is there anyone whose career path you'd like to emulate? How does your resume look?

College is not the destination. Sometimes, your first career is not the destination. We should continue to congratulate high-achieving young people, but empty praise is not going to help them when school or training ultimately hits bumps or becomes frustrating.

The destination is not the 4.0. While grades and even grade point can be important depending on what career you are in, the goal is sustainable learning and application.

The destination is not the degree. It's not even the doors opened once you have the degree or the job you ultimately get with your qualifications.

The destination is not walking across the stage, loved ones looking on, pictures cross-posted on Facebook and Instagram, the degree on display in your home.

There are no destinations, just steps along a journey.

And as long as our students continue to set premature destinations and form their study habits, aspirations and life paradigms around these premature endpoints, then yes, there will be frustration, and yes, there will be wasted time, and yes, things will feel insurmountable that don't have to.

So I'm going to try to be there for my cousins and let them know that.

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