In this piece, Nathan Palmer tells us how TRIO programs changed the course of his life and asks us to think about how systematic inequalities require systematic solutions.
Walking into the conference room, I knew I was in trouble. It was the summer of 1997 and I was taking summer school classes to make up for a bad semester my junior year of high school. Everything in the room reeked of the 1970s, from the shaggy orange carpet to the earth tone curtains and the giant square conference table made of real hardwood. At the far end of that table sat my math teacher and the director of the Upward Bound program that was paying for my summer school classes.
“Do you know why we’ve called you in today, Nate?” The director asked. I remember she had stringy brown hair and how her presence alone intimidated me. All summer I had dodged her eye contact. “My grades,” I said to the floor.
“No. We brought you in to talk about college.” Surprise snapped my head up from the floor. “Mr. Jones and I have been talking, and we think the only thing standing between you and a college education is… well, you.” At that moment, I was failing Mr. Jones remedial math class, so I was more than a bit taken aback. “You’re too smart, Nate, to be earning grades like this,” she said sliding my math test across the table towards me. The circled cherry red D+ next to my name made me feel like Hester Prynne.
“You’re not studying. You’re not doing your homework until 10 minutes before class starts.” The exasperation in Mr. Jones voice felt familiar. “You’re not trying in the slightest, and it pisses me off.” My hands clenched into fists reflexively. At 17, after spending a decade in the special education program, I was more than prepared me for situations like this. I knew how to appear dutiful without actually listening. I had a stock pile of snappy comebacks cocked and ready for classmates who called me retarded.
“Nate?” Off in the distance, I heard the director’s voice. “Nate!” She was good. She saw I had checked out of the conversation. “Nate, did you hear what we just said.” I nodded to the floor. “Then, please, tell us what you heard us say.” “My grades are crap. I have to study better. You’re disappointed.” Her chair creaked as she leaned back into it. When I couldn’t take the silence any longer, I looked up and met her eyes. “No, Mr. Palmer. We said that you are college material. Your grades and your general attitude are just a temporary problem.” She paused. “Do you think you’re college material?”
I didn’t say a word, but the answer was no. Just a few months before my guidance counselor had encouraged me to go to community college to learn how to be a welder because, “it pays well and it doesn’t require a lot of reading and writing.” After failing multiple classes my junior year, the teacher’s aide in my special education program told me I had ruined my GPA. When I asked her if I could still get into college, she encouraged me to be, “more realistic.”
After my long silence answered her question, the director leaned forward, squinted, and pierced through the walls I had up with her eyes. “Mr. Palmer. You are exactly the type of student who will thrive in college. I know it. Mr. Jones knows it. Everyone here at Upward Bound knows it. The only question is, when will you come to know it too?”
With that, a flicker of hope was ignited within me. I protected that flame with all that I had as I went through the 8-year hurricane that was my undergraduate education. I replayed that day in my head when I bombed my freshmen year, was put on academic probation, and had to leave because I couldn’t pay my tuition.
How TRIO Programs Changed My Life
Today, I’m a professor at Georgia Southern University, so you already know how this story ends. But, as a low-income, first-generation student with multiple learning differences, my odds of getting here were slight. We know from ample research, that students from these backgrounds are less likely to go to college, graduate, and go on to earn a Ph.D. (ACE 2015; Bjorklund-Young 2016; NCES 2012; Pell Institute 2011). This might be the point where you think I am going to take credit for being a self-made man, but that’s not my truth.
I know, without a doubt, that if it hadn’t been for Upward Bound, I wouldn’t have made it to college. Furthermore, if it wasn’t for The McNair Program, I wouldn’t have made it into graduate school. Both Upward Bound and The McNair Program are TRIO programs. Across the country, TRIO programs use federal tax dollars to support students who are from low-income families, underrepresented groups, and/or students who are the first in their families to go to college.
What makes TRIO so special is that it is a systematic response to educational inequality. Social inequality isn’t created by individuals acting in isolation. It’s created by systems, policies, and institutions. In our “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” culture, we champion the individual who can overcome all of the barriers standing between them and success. But, in reality, no one succeeds alone and it is unreasonable to think we can do away with social inequality by expecting a herculean effort from every disadvantaged student. To address the systematic roots of social inequality, we need systematic responses. As a country, we need to provide more funding for these programs and we need to develop additional similar programs that address inequality systematically.
I am just one of the countless students whose lives have forever been changed by the people who work within TRIO programs. In closing, allow me to one last time say, thank you to everyone who makes TRIO possible. I’ll spend the rest of my career trying to pay forward the debt I owe you.
- Why are individual solutions alone not enough to address systematic inequality? Explain your answer.
- What are some other systematic approaches to reducing educational inequality (Hint: think of how many students pay for college).
- Think back on your education. What messages did you receive from your teachers and classmates about your abilities? How did these messages affect your educational performance?
- Did you have an experience with an educator, family member, or anyone else that changed the course of your educational career? Explain your answer.
- American Council on Education. 2015. “Where Have All the Low-Income Students Gone?” Higher Education Today. Retrieved September 20, 2016 (https://higheredtoday.org/2015/11/25/where-have-all-the-low-income-students-gone/).
- Bjorklund-Young, Alanna. 2016. “Family Income and the College Completion Gap.” Johns Hopkins School of Education Blog. Retrieved September 18, 2016 (http://education.jhu.edu/edpolicy/commentary/collegegradgap).
- National Center for Education Statistics. 2012. “The NCES Fast Facts Tool Provides Quick Answers to Many Education Questions (National Center for Education Statistics).” Retrieved September 20, 2016 (https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=72).
- The Pell Institute. 2011. Pell Institute Fact Sheet. Retrieved September 18, 2016 (http://www.pellinstitute.org/downloads/fact_sheets–6-Year_DAR_for_Students_Post-Secondary_Institution_121411.pdf).
I mean no disrespect to anyone with any cognitive or learning difference. I chose to use this word here because it was used by those who mocked me used. ↩