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Resilience is not Enough: Equity Matters in Higher Education

Jo Ann Paanio

Friday, September 8, 2017

Roll call, check. Additional enrollments, check. Syllabus review, check. Course and textbook requirements, check. The first day of the semester would then typically begin with a simple quiz consisting of 10 true or false statements: "All men are created equal." "Everyone has a voice." "Stereotypes do not matter." The list goes on. This “pop quiz” was my way of getting students in my political science class to share their reactions to these accepted truths.

Every time I listen to students’ responses, I get a surging feeling of admiration. Many had grown up in destitute neighborhoods and were simultaneously enrolled in school while juggling full-time jobs to provide for their families. Some had parents who had escaped war-torn countries making the ultimate sacrifice in pursuit of the American dream. Others had found themselves immersed in books happy to leave behind their former lives in the foster care system. And those who had escaped these challenges still felt the pressure of being the first in the family to attend college. Though they each differed in their journey, every student’s path was emboldened by one word: resilience.

But is it mere resilience that will enable our students to continue to climb up the ladders of social mobility?  According to the U.S. Department of Education, the rising costs associated with college are at an all-time high. Reports indicate that college tuition fees across the country have more than doubled over the last 30 years. [1]Overall student loan debt in the United States is currently valued at $1.4 trillion USD.[2] An algorithm consisting of students from underrepresented backgrounds aiming towards figures stacked against them in a fragmented system does not make sense. 

I fought hard to defeat the barriers of growing up as a part of an underrepresented community in an underprivileged neighborhood in Los Angeles.  I’ve witnessed the depths of poverty, inequality, conflict, and violence and experienced the barriers that can stand in the way of dreams. I considered it an honor to teach at the very same institution of higher education that provided me with the foundation and path towards success.  So I would greet my students with, “Proud product of the LAUSD system right here. Don’t underestimate your potential. Why be mediocre when you can be great?”

But it was hard to listen to students' stories and not wonder why our society isn’t working harder to improve the socioeconomic conditions for all students to thrive on an equitable basis. Is the landscape of higher education a true depiction of where our country is headed?[3]

Equal access to higher education doesn’t count for much if tuition costs are prohibitive and the resources students need to stabilize their home lives so that they can concentrate on learning are out of reach.  The Forum for Youth Investment’s Co-Founder, President and CEO Karen Pittman wrote a poignant piece titled “Changing the Odds for Youth: Creating Opportunities that Really Matter”[4] in which she stated, “Equity is achieved when the playing field is leveled and the fences are taken down, providing young people with real opportunities to get in the game.”

So I began to wonder, what more could I do to ensure that all young people have the opportunities, preparation and supports needed to get into the game? What can I do to help move the needle from equality to equity?  I know firsthand what it takes to beat the odds stacked against you. In my own way, I tried to create a path for my own students in the very same way that my professors had paved the way for me to succeed.  But I wanted to do more.

My story and my students’ stories were connected by one word: opportunity. I decided that I needed to find a way to change the odds for students like mine.  I wanted to ensure that more youth found the opportunities they needed to succeed and had the supports they needed to take full advantage of them.

The opportunity soon came calling from Washington, DC. My decision to move across the country to learn from and work with the best and brightest in the field of youth development has allowed me to see just how much more can be done for our youth in this country. Joining a team of leading experts that works vigorously to shed light on the multifaceted issues that youth face directly to the forefront of public policy is an opportunity and true privilege. Being a part of a galvanizing federal advocacy campaign that calls on members of Congress to invest in our nation’s future through America’s youth has brought me one step closer to changing the odds for others.