knowing how to work the system.

9 Sep

Short version: People don’t all start from the same starting line. Knowing how a system works is a privilege that gets passed down generationally, giving those who come later an inheritance that helps them to succeed.

Longer version: We took our eldest to college for the first time a few weeks ago. Not surprisingly, this has caused me to reflect quite a bit on my college experience. The differences between her experience and mine have caused me to think about how difficult it is to navigate a system that no one in your family knows much about.

College is not a common experience in my family history. My dad and his brother were the first generation in their families to go on to higher education. My mother’s father got his degree, but it was when he was an adult. Neither of my parents’ experience with higher ed was a “typical” university experience – my father went to the Naval Academy and my mother went to nursing school.

The issue that stands out to me as the most illustrative is around housing. I was a very vulnerable 18 year old. I was still on antidepressant medications. I was still prone to self-harming. When I went to college, the school over-enrolled my class and so a number of us ended up in a motel off campus, 3 people to a room. I had no say in picking my roommates, we were just assigned at random. I ended up with two young women who went out the first night and brought back a bunch of fraternity guys, waking me up with their partying. This happened several nights in a row. To make matters worse, I had a M-F 8am calculus class that was off campus on the other side of campus from the motel. It took forever to get there. Needless to say, I missed a lot of calculus and did a lot of couch-surfing until the mandatory 6 week waiting period before asking for dorm changes.

This is the privilege part: If my kid had been in a similar vulnerable place and had had similar issues to what I had, as her parent I would have made an enormous ruckus. The school administration would have heard from me every day until I felt she was in a safe situation that would allow her to succeed. I am generally not one of those pesty parents, but in this case, I surely would have been.

I don’t blame my parents – they had no idea that they even could make a ruckus! They just accepted that it was the (bad) luck of the draw. They did not have any expectations that the college they were paying might provide some resources to their daughter because they had not had that experience themselves.  Comparatively, I had it easier than most. Imagine how much more difficult it is for children who are the first generation in their families to seek higher education! 

This is one way privilege gets perpetuated and passed on down the generations. Because I had a college experience myself, I have higher expectations for what that experience will be for her, and I know how to work the system for her benefit.  Imagine how much more difficult it is for children who are the first generation in their families to seek higher education!

I sometimes hear people claim that “we all start off at the same starting line” in life. But that isn’t true. In any way. Some of us get a leg up thanks to the experiences of our parents, or their parents, or even generations of ancestors who passed things down to us: finances, expectations, or even just knowing how to work the system for our benefit. And these are all priceless inheritances that one not everyone starts off with.

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