I took my 8th graders to visit Columbia University last week. I thought it would be a good idea to get them thinking about the importance of college and to let them know that I expect them to go to college. So many people at school (teachers, administrators and even the staff at my after school program) expect nothing from most of the kids, so it sometimes suprises me that more kids don't give up when they are constantly told they won't amount to anything. Now I don't think college trips are going to change very much - although the way the kids reacted to a visit by a Dominican friend of mine from the South Bronx was really great to watch. He was originally going to talk mostly about college, but the kids really connected with him and seemed to understand a little more about what it takes to succeed in high school and beyond. Even after the success of that visit, I wasn't sure what the kids were going to get out of seeing Columbia.
I was pretty sure that the kids wouldn't understand how good of a school Columbia is. But I think they figured out pretty quickly that they wouldn't feel comfortable there. What they really focused on was the fact that the students there were not like them (most of the kids were Latino or black). Several of the kids asked the tour guide if everyone looked like me, white and blond, even though I thought that the student body seemed fairly diverse. The kids also zeroed in on the buildings and how different they were from Queens. One asked why there weren't any fire escapes, and wanted to know how people got out in case of a fire. They also wanted to know right away about how much it costs to attend the university, and didn't believe me or the tour guide about the possibility of financial aid.
Maybe a little exposure to a world completely different from their own will help these kids be able to think about going to college, something most of their parents never did. But it was pretty obvious that they felt like there was no way that they could ever get to a place like Columbia. It's sad that kids who are just starting to make their way in life (they'll be in high schools all over the city next year) feel like so many avenues in the future are already closed off. I couldn't tell if it was the Ivy League atmosphere that made the kids uncomfortable since we visited Queens College during spring break and the kids couldn't get a good feel of the college, but I don't like it that the 8th graders are already deciding that some colleges are too good for them.