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Where We’re Going: The Role of Expectations

Where We’re Going: The Role of Expectations

Whether we realize it or not, the people who surround us as we grow up inform our sense of possibility. Discreet messages are passed along by what our peer groups, siblings, and parents not only say but what they do. They shape what we imagine we can be. My colleague, Shun Robertson, spoke to this in an earlier blog. Shun is a first-generation college student from a low-income background. Growing up, she had aspirations to be a secretary until someone raised the bar, told her she could do more. That’s what programs and institutions intentionally designed with an equity focus can do for young people: increase the chances that they’ll find the person who will help them imagine a different future and then give them the tools to put that future within reach.

In the two videos below, recorded at the 2013 Partners for Postsecondary Success Learning Institute, two students share their stories about expectations and success.

Navile Rodriguez, Part 1 from MDC on Vimeo.

Navile Rodriguez is a community college student in Brownsville, TX. At the Learning Institute she shares with us the story that brought her there. She spent most of her life on the eastern shore of Delaware amongst peers who expected that maybe some of them would get their high school diploma but most would dropout or get pregnant before that could happen and she was okay with that: “Barely passing my classes but that was okay because that’s what all the Hispanic kids did,” Navile says.

But everything changed when her family moved away to Brownsville as an 8th grader. When she arrived, she apprehensively agreed to enroll in some pre-AP classes at the encouragement of a counselor at her new school who believed she should give it a try. Navile walked into class and everybody there was Hispanic. “I know it sounds a little bit weird but I had the biggest culture shock ever,” she remembers. Not only was she surrounded by this new set of ambitious peers but her teachers now expected her to do her work. “They weren’t happy with me just barely passing anymore, and I didn’t understand why,” she says.

What Navile did know was that all her friends were in AP classes so she wanted to stay in them. Her school was setting high expectations for her and her peers and providing the support and advanced coursework to meet them. When the family was once more uprooted back to Delaware, the friends she had left behind hadn’t gone anywhere, some were still in school but, as was expected in this community, some had dropped out or gotten pregnant. When she asked to be enrolled in the AP classes there she was initially refused and told “they’re just too hard you.”

Blanca Davila from MDC on Vimeo.

The low-expectations for Blanca Davila stemmed from being the youngest and the only daughter in her family. Her low-income parents were supportive of her education but made it very clear that if she decided to leave for school, she’d be on her own. None of her siblings had pursued postsecondary education when it came time for her to apply, so she didn’t have any guidance navigating the complex web of college applications, scholarships, and FAFSA. It really was completely up to her and she made it. When the scholarship money she worked so hard to find ran out, success coaches at her college helped her set ambitious goals and create a plan so that she could stay in school with the friends and the dance team she had grown to love.

Young people today face a laundry list of seemingly insurmountable challenges to achieving a postsecondary credential and living-wage job: from a lack of financial resources to subtly communicated messages about what is and is not possible. With odds like that our schools have an important role to play in connecting students to opportunity.  Passively hoping that young people beat those odds disconnected from supports is unlikely to create the scalable improvements that we aspire to.

The compass points north: An institution cannot be truly equity focused unless it raises expectations and provides support for all students, rather than a select few. It’s not enough to help a promising student beat the odds—we need to change the odds.

This is the twelfth installment in a series called “Where We’re Going: Places on the Road to the North Star,” which explores lessons from the past three years of the Partners for Postsecondary Success (PPS) initiative and looks ahead, toward the North Star goals the partner cities are aiming to achieve. This video was recorded at the PPS April 2013 Learning Institute.PPS, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and led by MDC, is an effort by partnerships in Amarillo, TX; Brownsville, TX; Raleigh, NC; and affiliate site Charlotte, NC, to increase the number of low-income young adults getting postsecondary credentials that lead to living-wage jobs.