What does it mean when our education system, “The Great Equalizer,” turns low-income dreamers into third-generation self-doubters? When a high-quality education system is built only to serve and advance the dreams of highly resourced, high-wealth individuals?
Prior to my time at UC Berkeley, the formula to a successful college career seemed pretty simple. All you had to do was work hard, study and simply care about the fact that you’re in college.
Despite the struggle to raise standardized test scores or generate funds for increased Advanced Placement courses, my South East San Diego high school produced ambitious, hard working, resilient youth of color –largely of Latina and/or Filipina descent. Mentors and teachers alike built up a strong shield of confidence around any glimmer of doubt that I would not make it to college.
I never asked myself whether or not I would get into a four-year university. Naively, I never asked myself how I would deal with navigating complex financial systems, unaffordable Bay Area housing, feeding myself, culturally irrelevant curriculum, or how to explain to my professors that despite my admission to Berkeley, I still struggled with writing and speaking the English language.
Starting with Self-Doubt
So what is education’s first ingredient to the subconscious immobilization of the low-income dreamer? Let’s start with self-doubt. I originally walked into Berkeley as an intended philosophy major, and a hopeful future international rights lawyer. My ancient and modern philosophy classes put me a step closer to this goal. Unbeknownst to me, it would also be the beginning of internalizing failures rooted in my lack of financial privilege or a wealthy upbringing.
Already overwhelmed by the lack of students who looked like me or spoke like me, I ended up leaving the philosophy department after I lost count of how many times the other students referenced their trips to Greece or the Acropolis. The topic saturated each philosophy discussion so heavily that I convinced myself it was a prerequisite to be a philosophy major at Berkeley. Begrudgingly, I look back on this moment, remembering how much I blamed myself for having never been to Greece. I told myself that had I done my research right, saved my money, and hopped on a plane to Greece at 16, maybe then I could understand whether or not the falling tree made a sound in the empty forest.
Self-doubt is most potent when mixed with intense pressure to succeed in an institution built to profit off of you, rather than support you.”
Self-doubt is most potent when mixed with intense pressure to succeed in an institution built to profit off of you, rather than support you. In my second year, I began taking molecular and cell biology courses in order to declare psychology as my new major.
This time around, I was not alone in my struggles. My partner, Travis, and I both struggled with the rigor of Berkeley’s prestigious hard science programs. We spent many nights together, studying, reciting factoids memorized from our professor’s slides, drawing out diagrams to turn lines and circles into elements discovered by Nobel Prize laureates.
My partner and I came from incredibly different backgrounds. My mama was a Filipina immigrant who was ripped away from school at age 11 and placed into hard labor to support her family. My papa spent his time working to repay the debts of being poor. My partner’s parents were college graduates who owned a yacht company that generated enough funds to pay Travis’s tuition in full ($20,000 out-of-state fees included). We both took the possibility of disappointing our parents through academic failure incredibly hard and our connection strengthened as we navigated our second year of college together.
As the possibility of failing my science classes turned into reality, I began to notice such a powerful difference between Travis and I. The thought of failing my classes snowballed into this thought of failing college, and ultimately, failing to pull my family out of that 1-bedroom apartment I had grown to loathe. If I failed during my time at Berkeley, if I dropped out, I went back to nothing.
The possibility of Travis failing promised him lifelong policing of his life choices by his parents. It was not exactly the ideal alternative, but this policing was wrapped in a three-story house and a family company generating more than a million dollars a year in profit. It was wrapped in options – alternate routes to success. In this moment, the necessity for my success became more apparent, and, more suffocating. It became my only chance to “make it.”
I clawed my way through UC Berkeley to fight my self-doubt and the unrealistic pressure that I put on myself. My experience in the philosophy department and sophomore year’s hard science struggle were placed in the context of sleeping through class to have enough energy for multiple jobs. It was effected by learning that the largest contributor to my scholarship fund had committed suicide and his family closed down his foundation. It came from realizing that I clicked the wrong button on the financial aid page and now owed the university more than $4,000, and navigating the freedoms and challenges of declaring myself a queer person of color.
There were no bittersweet goodbyes come graduation. I was just bitter. While peers posted memories of “that one time on campus” or their nerves about entering the “real world,” I felt robbed of what movies portray as the college experience. Friends struggled to disconnect from spending a majority of their day on campus as graduating seniors, while my displacement from Berkeley happened two years earlier, pushing me into Oakland to escape Berkeley’s poor quality and yet unaffordable housing.
I did not walk away from Berkeley with offers to write an honors thesis or a GPA that was even half of what I accomplished in high school. But in my final moments at Berkeley, I was incredibly proud of myself. I saw myself for what I was, a product of broken systems that failed young people of color. Systems that left us hungry, helpless and under-educated. With the support of resource centers, peers, activists and community groups, I also saw my life experiences for what they were really worth – unique and important perspectives to fighting injustice – even if they did not include a trip to Greece.