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On Courage (and Choosing to Act)

Yesterday I posted a quote on my instagram from MLK Jr. on courage.  Courage is the power of the mind to overcome fear.  This seemed especially apropos because I’ve been thinking a lot about courage lately.  I know I’ve posted on being fearless previously, but I think courage is something drastically different.  I believe that a successful (and examined) life requires us to be courageous.

P I N I T

As many of my readers know, I run a non-profit focused on college access for all students in urban schools.  This job, while rewarding, is subject to local and national politics, policies, and other things that have nothing to do with college access.  I’ve always prided myself on being about the students and immersing myself in the direct service of helping students, but I eventually realized that – in order to have and continue having a broader impact for students – I needed to start being a part of conversations on the national level.

I started submitting conference proposals.  My first year, I put in a presentation letters of recommendation with two of my favorite people (one from admissions and the other a teacher).  We were blunt and honest about the fact that most of the time, adults fail students in this process.  I thought it would make people hate me (I’m sure some do; here’s looking at the woman who told me I was appalling and stormed out of the room), but we received a lot of positive feedback.  Many people rated our session as one of the best they had ever attended at the state conference.

I was further emboldened.  I took that proposal to the national conference, where it was accepted.  We received the usual throat-clearing, but we received rave reviews for our honesty.  In addition to recommendation letter development, I submitted proposals on how to create and leverage a college access village, essay writing, and most recently, the new application for access, affordability and success.

journey of doing - on courageP I N I T

Ah.  The Coalition.  The single most controversial thing in college admissions right now.

It took courage to publish this piece about it in the Washington Post.  It took courage to read the critiques of me (and my work) on our profession’s Facebook group (I did start to opt out of that).  It took courage to take the stage multiple times over the past year to talk about what the Coalition meant for our students – and students like mine – the marginalized, the underserved, the underrepresented.

Yet I did it.

I did it at the Super Conference with three ACACs.  I did it at WACAC.  I did it at AP Nationals.  I did it at NACAC.  I did on a College Board webinar.  And, I ended 2017 with it at College Board Forum.  I didn’t talk about the application, however, I talked about the realities of the challenges facing low-income students.  I’m going to share a few of those realities with you right now, lest you think that this presentation is about an application.  (This is relevant, I promise.)

  • At least 24% of our students don’t know if they will be a first-generation college student (and that’s not to say that the ones who answered yes or no understand what the term actually means)
  • 40% believe that dual-credit is more rigorous than AP because it’s “taught by a college”
  • 69% believe that you should have many activities, rather than one or two where you make an impact.
  • 41% believe that it’s more important to be a club member, rather than a leader.

If you read those stats, you should understand that helping these students understand the college process can’t and shouldn’t start with a college application.  It should start well before then but it often doesn’t.  It’s not about an application.  It’s about a fractured process that isn’t serving students well.  It’s about a knowledge gap that exists in our schools with fewer and fewer resources.

As a result, in the last year, I’ve lent my voice to several institutions and organizations who are trying to work towards equity in the admissions process.  This is a space where my voice is desperately needed because it is underrepresented in the college admissions profession in general.  This is a space where few people will ever understand how devastating (and debilitating) it can be for students when your district sends out the wrong essay prompts to English teachers for a college essay writing unit.  This is a space where people call for rec letters to be dismissed without realizing that’s the only place where I can successfully communicate for my students.  This is a space where adults are comfortable blaming kids for failures without ever looking in the mirror to acknowledge the role that adults might play in it.  (And the only place where people can shut down their offices two weeks in advance of deadlines and feel comfortable blaming kids for not adhering to arbitrary, fake deadlines.)

I am, in many ways, the thorn in the side of the profession.  And I intend to stay that way, regardless of whether it’s popular or not.  I am an insanely zealous advocate for students – all students. It’s fundamental to my being.

So.  Imagine my surprise when not once, but twice in the last year, I have been approached to “choose” who I am going to serve on behalf my students.  The first time it happened, I slept on it, and then gave it a thorough tongue lashing about how my position was the best possible position to inform students and counselors about options.  (Because it is.  I serve more than 16,000 students year in a myriad of settings.)  I felt a myriad of emotions.  Disappointment.  Frustration.  Sadness.  Ultimately, my email served its purpose and everything worked itself out.  The second time this happened, I felt all of those emotions again, but with added rage.  I thought about resigning – no one gives ME an ultimatum.  I thought about quitting.  I thought about slinking off into the January deadlines and immersing myself in student work.

Two things happened, however.  1)  I spent the last few weeks of the month working with our students who sincerely don’t understand the process and it reaffirmed why I need to advocate for them.  2)  A college readiness teacher gave kids the wrong scholarship essay prompts, told students to turn the essays into her (instead of putting them into the scholarship application), and then went on leave with no further direction on how to apply to this very generous scholarship that few of our students even qualify to apply to.

Not today, Satan.  Not today.

I screwed up all my courage and wrote an email affirming my position, refusing to choose, and putting everyone on notice that I was not to be messed with on this.  The response I got back was what I expected, “Sorry, but we are going to require you to choose based on this circumstance…”  Except their circumstance didn’t actually apply to me and I told them that.  I also did my research to find out that it wouldn’t apply to me in the future.  How this plays out is get to be seen, but I can assure you that I’m resting a little bit easier knowing that I didn’t just give up.

Life is hard, friends.  It’s particularly hard for the least among us.  The ones whose voices are drowned out by the people who believe that the playing field is equal, that people just need to “work harder,” and the ones who think that racism is dead and equality has been achieved.  (Please watch this keynote by the fantastically courageous Shaun Harper.)

Be courageous and strong.  Lend your privilege to the least among us.  Stand up and say no when a situation demands it.  The conversations that I have had to engage in for the last year or so are not comfortable.  At times, they are straight up uncomfortable.  They require me to be vulnerable.  They require me to be honest.

They require me to be courageous.

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  • Sarah - Well said, Sara! You know I am one of your biggest fans & supporters! You are doing amazing things everyday and you wouldn’t be who you are without being “a thorn in their side”! Keep it up! <3 <3ReplyCancel

  • Kate - I’m always in awe of what you do, and love the courage and determination you have. You truly are amazing <3
    Green FashionistaReplyCancel

  • Mandy - I admit I don’t completely understand your post. BUT I do understand that you had the courage to stand up for what you believed to be right. You had the courage to make a decision that would be frowned upon and not back down. That, to me, deserves the utmost respect. I sincerely hope everything works out in your favor for your latest decision.ReplyCancel

  • Rachel - Like Mandy there’s a lot of this that goes over my head owing to only really understanding the UK university application process, but what I do get loud and clear is that there is, surprise surprise, huge inequality that needs strong advocacy and action to try and rectify. And it sounds like that’s exactly what you’re doing. This sounds like incredibly important work and I’m so glad you’re doing it. Keep on keeping on!ReplyCancel

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