July 19, 2009

Education and the bumpy road to personal success

I am preparing to attend a high school reunion and shall I say, its been a few years. So thanks to Facebook I am reconnecting with people I knew in high school and haven't seen in quite awhile.
I recently had a telephone conversation with a former classmate, Fernando Nunez aka "Chick" who asked a simple question, "Tell me this...how does a girl who grew up in West Tampa, Florida end up getting a doctorate from Harvard ???". Any readers out there from West Tampa will understand.

While in high school I probably could have been rated "least likely to succeed". I was not the least bit interested in school. I did what I needed to do to get by. I didn't grow up in a house full of books and parents who pushed you to succeed and offered music lessons, tutoring for SATs, etc. College was not an expectation, though it was considered a plus if it happened. So as I entered my senior year of high school and started to look toward the next step I decided maybe college was the best alternative and I enrolled in St. Petersburg Community College. It started out slow; I was taking "general studies" courses that bored me to tears but something clicked when I discovered philosophy and psychology courses and the rest is history. I developed a love of learning that inspired me and led eventually to a doctorate from Harvard.

We have a dilemma: psychology research tells us the best predictor of future behavior is past performance. But how do you account for qualitative leaps or major changes in behavioral patterns? How do you know when a late bloomer is emerging? How do we sift through the economic, class and cultural issues that may mask our ability to detect personal potential?

Obama is putting new emphasis on funding for community colleges and I applaud this effort. However, I recently heard a story on NPR about Houston Community College in which a college administrator commented "....we don't get the best and the brightest here but.....". It bothered me. I thought to myself, how do you know the best and brightest are not lurking within your midst waiting for the opportunity to shine? Who is more impressive, the kid given an admissions coach to get into the elite schools, who attended impressive foreign programs and internships, and had extensive tutoring to get that math SAT score up? Or the less privileged kid who beats the odds by getting through community college while working fulltime and then goes on to excel?

Predicting future performance is not easy but one thing we can do is continue to level the playing field: supporting our community colleges is one way to do this.

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