I had just taken the bold step of enrolling in a community college. After handing in my forms at the registrar's office, I was instructed to meet with an advisor.
This was taking longer than I had expected, so I called my mother to ask her to pick up my kids from school. She agreed, so I found a chair and waited for my appointment.
I was ushered into the adviser's office a few minutes later. She was not ready to meet with me yet so I glanced at the newspaper clippings that hung from the office in her room.
One in particular caught my eye. It was the story of a girl who grew up homeless in Los Angeles. She was born to a teenage single mother and spent her nights traveling from homeless shelter to homeless shelter with her mother. However, this girl loved to read and spent every day in the library learning whatever she could get her hands on. This tendency continued as she got older. She enrolled in the highest-level classes available at her inner-city high school, got straight-A's, and ultimately went to Harvard with a full scholarship.
A nice story, but for some reason I was not particularly impressed. I thought to myself, "How could I not be impressed by this story? Isn't it the classic tale of overcoming adversity?"
Then it hit me. I was sitting in the office of a local community college--not Harvard.
While I'm sure that the article left out a few details, the girl in the article didn't seem to have an internal struggle. Her nature was to be studious, and therefore as soon as she was old enough to read she spent all of her time reading and studying. Given that she was a naturally intelligent girl who spent hours reading each day, it is hardly surprising that she got the Harvard scholarship. Intelligence and diligence are to a large extent genetic, and her genetic combination was strong enough that it could withstand being born into bad circumstances.
But how is any of this relevant to us, the community college students in this office?
I was not at Harvard, and neither were the other students who would sat in this office before me and would sit in this office after me, because we were not like the girl in the article. We did not make all of the right choices--we made mistakes. Whether the mistake involved joining an extreme religious group, having unprotected sex at 15, dropping out of high school, or simply not caring about school, most of us were here for a similar reason--to get a second (or third, or fourth, etc.) chance.
During the year that I spent at community college, I met many other students who were working hard at overcoming their pasts. I met a student who worked her way up from remedial elementary-school math all the way to calculus in order to fulfill her dream of studying environmental science. I met a woman who was at college together with her daughter, working her way towards a better job. I met a man who had just spent many years in jail and now wanted to turn his life around.
While I am happy that I am able to take more advanced courses now that I am at a regular college, I can't help but miss all of the inspiring students back at the community college, the students who had made mistakes.
I went to a research conference last week that featured the research of Undergraduate students who were considered "disadvantaged" by being from certain minority groups or from being first-generation college students. This is not a group that I am eligible for. My father is a university professor and my mother has a master's degree. My SAT score as good enough that I could have gotten into almost any college that I wanted to, but I didn't go to college because I thought that it was wrong to do so. I was "advantaged" and I blew it.
Yet here I am in school again, aiming for a doctorate someday.
My disadvantage did not come from my background but from myself. But perhaps beating oneself really is the greatest challenge.