One of the photos accompanying the lead article, “Graduating, but to what?” in the Sunday, October 18, 2015, edition of The Washington Post shows a broken-down, rusted-out, and faded brick store front with gaping square holes where windows used to be. In the space above what was the entrance to the store in large faded white letters was a sign—“FOR COLORED.”
It seems superfluous that the store would have had that designating sign since Sunflower County in Mississippi has been close to 80 percent Black since the Civil War, when many Black people migrated to the county in search of jobs and often became share-croppers. My mother was born in Sunflower County in 1924. She told me stories about the hopelessness and poverty of this County and other similar places she and my grandparents lived in the Mississippi Delta. She said she was afraid to stay in Mississippi where there was no hope, so her major goal was to move her parents out of Mississippi.
The young Black man I read about in Chico Harlan’s article seems to be living in circumstances too similar to what my mother described so many decades before. He graduated from a high school that has been given a grade of F by the state, the poverty rate in Sunflower County is nearly three times the national average, and Sunflower County has the lowest median income in the nation.
The personal story of the young man is as devastating as the grade assigned to the school and the statistics about the state. He has no roots, no home, no anchor. He is like so many of our students, wherever we might be located, who are struggling to survive. They, too, are living from house to house with relatives and acquaintances, all trying to scratch out a living.
How many of our students are searching for a place to sleep? Your school may not be in Sunflower County, but your students could be facing similar challenges as the young man Chico Harlan followed on graduation day.
Like the young man in the article, some of your students are marginal students because they do not have the luxury of places to study outside of school; they do not have the richness of foundational knowledge and skills upon which to build new knowledge, and they do not have the gift of someone who cares that they reach a satisfying destination.
All of the strategies we implement for persistence and graduation rates will not be sufficient if we are unable to know who our students are, to know how they live, and to know if they have a destination in mind. There are reasons why some students seem immune to the efforts to engage them in everyday college activities including dedicating time to study.
“Graduating, but to what?” should give us all pause and cause for soul searching.
After graduation, the young man in the Harlan article had disastrous results seeking employment. He was even fired from a part-time job pulling weeds. He was unable to get hired at a factory “known as a place that hires most who show up.” He had no practical knowledge on how to be an adult in the world.
When young adults seem to have a deficit in executive functioning skills, it is usually because they have not seen these skills modeled at home. Part of the requirements for college graduation, then, must be preparing graduates to seek, attain, and retain employment. Our graduation rate is a priority, but if our graduates do not have practical skills for planning, time management, and how to present themselves for consideration for employment, among other practical skills, the graduation they achieve is a counterfeit.
After graduating and failing to get any kind of employment, the young man in the excellent Harlan article, is told about a technical school in Nashville. Desperate, he burdens himself with $30,000 of debt in order to train to get a certificate as a diesel mechanic where he might make $42,000 a year if he is lucky enough to complete the training and get a decent position.
Just when I think that this story can’t get any sadder, I learn that the struggling family is betting all they have (his aunt signed for him to get one of two loans he needed for tuition, his grandmother gathered donations from relatives and cut back on groceries and did not pay her phone bill in order to raise money for him to travel to Nashville) on the success of this young man who has not yet demonstrated that he can succeed as an adult. I root hard for him because just like my mother who escaped to Tennessee, he said, “I was scared of staying in Mississippi.”
(Note: The situation described here is not about the entire state of Mississippi.)