The Dreams of Poor and Working-Class Students

I was half-listening to the radio last week when I heard an interviewer ask a question that made me pause in my work to listen.   “So”, the interviewer warmly asked, “You knew even as a small child that you wanted to be a concert cellist?”  “Oh yes”, the woman answered. “Since I was eight.”

I’ve been thinking about that brief exchange ever since because I sometimes tell stories of cellos when I teach about the dreams of poor and working-class children.  I tell my students that for all I know, I might have become this generation’s best concert cellist and the world would have been richer for it.  The problem, I explain, is that there were no concert cellists within miles of my small Wisconsin town.  There was very limited access to classical recordings, and almost no live music beyond church choirs and school bands. There were no cellos in my working class community.

At eight, I could never have imagined becoming a concert cellist (or any of hundreds of other things) because I had so little access to information about how such things came to be. I knew that people in other places played in orchestras because I’d heard them on TV and had seen some records at the public library.  But the path from my world to the distant places where such things happened was invisible to me.

My parents and teachers supported my dreams as best as they could.  But I could never have dreamed of cellos.

I recently read another story about dreams.   A working-class Latina student wanted to go to college, but her school did not provide the information that she needed. Spending time on a friend’s computer, this young woman discovered that the brothers and sisters and cousins of some of her peers were posting updates on MySpace about their first months as college students.  From these “several-degrees-of-separation” contacts, she began to piece together an informal mentoring network from which she could learn about navigating college.

I’m intrigued by the potential of the many new digital connections now possible across geographic and social boundaries.  Yet the dreams of poor and working-class children should not depend on chance encounters like this.

So I want to imagine how information about college and about the many possible ways that one might live one’s life can reach more poor and working-class students. There are now multiple tools for young people to explore new worlds and for all of us to tell our stories.     I want to imagine those of us who did realize our dreams of becoming educated playing a larger role in blogging and Tweeting and Facebooking and You Tubing our journeys.  I imagine the generous sharing of stories of tenacity, triumphs, and meeting the inevitable obstacles head-on.  I imagine networks of first-generation college students supporting one another and those of us now long past college telling our stories of taking the next steps to find our places in communities and workplaces and families.

There are hopeful beginnings.  Last year, the Association of Working Class Academics and Class Action co-launched a Face Book page, “First in the Family” as one step in bringing people together to support, question, challenge, share, and dream.  The blog that you are reading brings together multiple voices around issues of social class, and these posts are then pushed out through Facebook.  The Center for Student Opportunity provides a blogging platform for first-generation college students as they navigate their way through the joys and challenges of life on campus.    People working in Student Affairs who were the first in their families to attend college are blogging together about their stories.

This can be only the beginning.  What can we each imagine about reaching out across class boundaries and physical distances to nurture the imaginations of poor and working class young people?  How will we share our stories and resources and hope, now that we have so many tools to amplify our individual and collective voices?

What stories can you tell that might enable poor and working-class students to imagine themselves on multiple possible paths through the next stages of their lives?  How will you begin telling them to young people who otherwise may never know what they might become?

2 Responses

  1. Rob

    Jane,

    Unfortunately the hopes and dreams of those of us from more humble backgrounds do depend largely on luck, coincidence, and by being at the right place at the right time. It will probably always be that way too. In my opinion it is because the economy is like a pie, there are only limited pieces of it to go around. Combine that with people who want to keep what they have within there own group, and you have a social and economic structure that is designed to hinder or prevent large scale upward mobility. Combine that with some of the nastier parts of working class culture and you have a recipe for social stagnation.

    Now, in my experience; there were practically zero tools for me like that in college. Facebook was just a limited concept then (2004), and blogs were nowhere near as common as they are today. Law school was better and worse. There were some other working class students, and we were close. However, the attitude of the other students could be just normal indifference to outward hostility, when we out performed them.

    I wis there was a way to really help guide working class students to thier dreams, but it really is a difficult challenge. One would have to deal with so many different things. Parents that may be hostile towards education, lack of money or the ability to obtain it, limited access to technology, lack of proper tools and talent (lack of cellos or cellists who can pass on their skills and knowledge) in the community, and a lack of support. I think that as technology improves it may get easier, but I do not think it will really change.

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