"From Newark to Cambridge": Newark Students Adjusting to Elite Institutions

This is the podcast’s third episode on education. On the first episode, we discussed pay for part-time lecturers, adjuncts, and grad students at Rutgers University Newark. Last episode, we had a conversation with a newly elected school board member, where she shared her goals and her vision for Newark Public Schools. This episode, we will focus on the most important part of the education system itself: students.

About three months ago, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts filed charges against several parents, admissions officers, and coaches for creating a system of bribery and lying on applications, with the intent of gaining admission for certain young students into elite institutions. Among those charged, most famously, were Lori Laughlin and Felicity Huffman. Unfortunately, this story was a bit of a red herring. It is wrong for applicants or their parents to lie on their applications or use money to gain admission. These people, however, represent an infinitesimally small number of college admits. The larger issue lies within the systemic structures themselves (from the help offered to wealthier high school students during the college application process to standardized testing to the quality of public schools).

Admission is only half the battle, however. This story overshadowed the publication of a very interesting book entitled The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges Are Falling Disadvantaged Students. Its author, Anthony Abraham Jack, collected stories at a particular elite institution from students with disadvantaged backgrounds. His stories weren’t groundbreakingly new—at least to the people who experienced college coming from these backgrounds. The importance of Jack’s work lies in the vocabulary he created to describe the experiences of these students. He categorized these students as either doubly disadvantaged—meaning that they came from an underprivileged background and an underserved high school—or privileged poor—meaning that they came from an underprivileged background but went to a high performing private school.

Reading the book was strange the podcast’s host. His own story best aligned with those who fell in the “privileged poor” category, and he saw many parallels between his own experience and those described in the book. Jack profiled several boarding school students who grew up in urban environments and received scholarships from institutions designed to send such students to boarding school. In fact, he profiled several students from the Wight Foundation—the very organization that shepherded me through the boarding school process.

In keeping with the spirit of Jack’s work, I have two current Harvard College students on today’s episode. They shared their experiences at one of the world’s most recognized institutions of higher education and how that university is providing. This conversation, hopefully, will begin a discussion that will continue both on this podcast and in the wider education world in Newark.

Guests:

Kim Boerrigter—Kim a rising junior and currently majoring in Integrative Biology at Harvard College. She attended Malcolm X Shabazz. She is passionate about science and forensic pathology and has participated in research excursions to the Pocono Environmental Education Center (Dingmans Ferry, PA), a poster presentation at the 2016 American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting (San Francisco, CA), and co-authorship of a scientific manuscript published in 2018. A member of the Fund II Foundation UNCF STEM Scholars Program and the Cooperman College Scholars program.

Lucia Couto—Lucia is a rising junior at Harvard, studying Math and History of Science. She attended Arts High School. She is the co-Director for the Deaf Awareness Club, which advocates for equal accessibility for all on Harvard’s campus and beyond. She was also a Peer Advising Fellow, working to help first-year students at Harvard as they adjust to life on campus.

Articles & Background:

  • Official Book Page for The Privileged Poor, Anthony Abraham Jack’s Official Page, Podcast Episode Where Jack Discusses the Book: Book Page; Jack Page; Podcast Episode

  • Harvard University’s Official First Gen Program Page: here

  • Harvard Crimson Article on First Gen Students: here

  • Vox Article on the Ways Elite Institutions Discriminate Against Poor Students: here

  • Wikipedia Article on “Imposter Syndrome”: here

Harvard Term Glossary:

  • Blocking Group—A group of students who decide to live together after freshman year. Not participating with a block group is called “floating.”

  • House—The name for the complex of buildings where upperclassmen live. There are 12 (officially, 13) houses at Harvard. Students are assigned to one with their blocking group at the end of freshman year with limited ability to transfer out.

  • Dorm—The name for the buildings where only freshmen live.

  • Concentration—The equivalent term for “major”

  • Secondary Field—The equivalent term for “minor”

  • Citation—A accreditation for achieving a certain amount credits in a particular language. Similar to a “minor” in a language.

  • Expos—A required expository writing class, where students learn how to write persuasively for college. There are two classes: Expos 10 and Expos 20.

  • Dorm Crew—A work study job for students where they clean other students’ bathrooms

End Quote:

“Too often we think about those youth who make it out of distressed communities and into college—especially elite colleges—having already won. These young people, we assume, hold a golden ticket. Yes, making it into an elite college almost guarantees that you’ll graduate. Renowned, like its peers, boasts a very high graduation rate. But graduation rates do not tell us of students’ experiences in college, their trials or their triumphs. After all, it is one thing for students to graduate. It is another for them to do so whole and healthy, ready for whatever the next adventure brings.” Anthony Abraham Jack, The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges Are Failing Disadvantaged Students