Thursday, August 16, 2012

Reconnect Part IV: A Student Again

After 14 years, I'm officially a college student again.  The path to reconnecting all these years later was circuitous and more challenging than I anticipated, but that's par for the course with things decided on a whim.

A few weeks ago I was at a job interview where I really thought my experience and networking would finally pay off. Everything was set up for me to be the right candidate. I knew how to talk the talk. I dropped the right names. I sounded the right rhetorical notes, but what I didn't do was tell them I had a college degree, "Bachelor's required, Master's preferred." What I told them instead was "no, I didn't get it," which is what I always say. I had some pre-made spin in the back of my head about competitive cost of labor and my experience putting me ahead of many with degrees, but I could sense the air had been sucked out of the room. The lead interviewer's tone changed from "nice to meet you" to "I can't believe you wasted my time" and out the door I went with a tepid goodbye and an obviously forced handshake.

I've been on the other side of those interviews. I've interviewed people and had them say something that turned everything on its head just when everything was going so well and you thought you'd found The One. In one case, a gentleman decided to confide in me that he was a recovering alcoholic. In another, a promising young lady got stuck on a question and just fell completely silent for about two solid minutes. In my case, it's been the degree. People are usually incredulous. I even had one prospective employer flat out tell me I'd be absolutely perfect for the position, but having no degree meant she'd never get it past HR.

While I marvel at these runaway human resources departments, I understand they do what they do to protect their organizations, many of whom have contractual stipulations and pre-set pay grades that would be thrown off kilter by hiring someone with lesser official qualifications to do a critical job. But my capitulation to this reality ultimately had nothing to do with my choice to return to school.

For me it was about respect.

I'm certainly no genius, but I do come from at least a marginally decent academic pedigree. My parents have a master's and a doctorate respectively. I was an honor student in my early years of high school and an AP student later on. I went to a liberal arts college of decent repute (albeit for a short period of time). I've been around the country and around the world. I've been in both the trenches and the ivory towers (such as they are) of non-profit social services for the past eight years. I've even had my writings published in a few places and received an award or two in my day. Despite all this, to the general intellectual public, I'm a nobody. You can't see the movie if you didn't buy a ticket and all my attempts to sneak in the emergency exit have met with failure. I want to have more conversations about the role of technology in modern youth development or the implications of globalization on American economic supremacy, but instead I end up in conversations about the relative literary merits of 50 Shades of Grey (there are none).

I'm now at an age where insecurity has dissipated in the harsh light of wanting to just be myself. I'm a snob and proud of it. There's no one who knows me who wouldn't agree with this characterization so I'm owning it. I'm also a realist. I want a place at the table to discuss the things that matter to me as an equal, not as some kid you pat on the head because he had a cute thought.

These were the things that ran through my mind when I raced to fill out my financial aid and CUNY applications. The process was surprisingly easy and it seemed like I was going to get in without much of a struggle. That didn't turn out to be the case.

In order to get into CUNY, one has to either pass a placement test or meet some other criteria such as having an SAT verbal score of 480 or higher, an ACT score of 20 or higher or a 75 or better on their NY State English Regents. I figured this was no problem since my SAT scores were well above the threshold and I'd also scored very well on the AP exam (which we took in lieu of the Regents). I contacted my high school and asked for my transcript to be sent and they offered to send my SAT scores and immunization records as well, which they assured me they still had despite their age. As it turned out, they had neither, but I wouldn't find this out for two weeks and ended up having to fork over $72 to the College Board to get them to open some vault in casa del carajo to find my SAT scores. In the absence of my immunization records, I had to get what was called a Titer Test to make sure I didn't become ground zero for some kind of measles pandemic, which cost me more time and money. I should also mention that while the CUNY placement test does exempt for a 75 or better on the Regents, it does not exempt for the considerably more difficult and college credit granting AP (even if you got a 5), which has to be about the dumbest, most non-sensical policy in the history of college admissions.

It was my work as an advocate for disconnected young people that made it possible. So many times over the years, I'd heard about their travails trying to get a job or into school or into some program. Typically, when one thing goes wrong, it's enough to get us to give up or become incredibly discouraged. We go into most situations with the suspicion that things are going to fall apart at any moment and when they do even a little bit, it reinforces this cognitive bias. I went in acting as my own advocate and every "no" or "well, we have a problem" was a solution waiting to happen. I pestered the folks at CUNY and my high school relentlessly with a phone call or an email at least twice a day because I was not going to let the opportunity slip through my fingers. When systems break down, desire can make the difference.

So I made it, literally at the buzzer on the last possible day I could have been formally accepted to start for the fall semester. It's going to be a struggle since the school is an hour and change subway ride from my apartment and the times of my classes will mold some future work schedule in ways I can't yet fathom, but what matters is that I'm a student again. I'm eager to see what this second round in college as an adult is like and looking forward to continuing on my path to reconnection.

But the most important thing is that I'm

Friday, August 10, 2012

Reconnect Part III: What We Leave Behind

Uncle Bill, circa 2011

One of the main differences between disconnected youth and their more successful counterparts is that successful young people tend to have a better support system. Positive Youth Development theory holds that young people who have a network of concerned and caring adults (and peers) in their lives are more likely to have beneficial outcomes such as completing school, having healthy relationships and generally becoming a decent, productive, law abiding citizen.  Key to these relationships is their sustainability, as young people, particularly those deemed "at-risk," tend to regard people who arbitrarily come in and out of their lives with suspicion.

In my youth, I was fortunate to have a number of supportive, concerned and caring adults around me. They encouraged me to get involved in activities, answered questions about anything I wanted to know (and I had a lot of them) and pointed me toward resources that could help me be successful in life. Some of them were people I knew through my church. Others were teachers or counselors I connected with in school. The bulk of my support, however, came from my family.

My mother had been a single teen mom from a working class background. My father had very little interaction with me after the first few years of my life. This put me squarely in the "at-risk" category long before I knew what the words meant. When my mom remarried and we moved from upstate New York to Long Island, I suddenly gained a large extended family that immediately accepted me as one of their own as if they'd known me from birth. Chief among them were my Aunt Lena and Uncle Bill.

When Aunt Lena came into my life, she was no longer working steadily owing to growing health concerns. As a result, she became the default caretaker for me and my legion of cousins after school and sometimes over the summer. Her husband, my Uncle Bill, worked the night shift at a center for the developmentally disabled so was often around when my cousins and I were making mischief  throughout the house during the restless afternoons and long summer days. Aunt Lena indulged our questions and volunteered plenty of wisdom, both solicited and otherwise. Uncle Bill had a little less patience for our nonsense than she did, but always seemed to take genuine joy in spending time with all of us, which was a skill lost on many men of his generation.

As I grew older, I saw them less, but still stopped in from time to time. Like many of the supportive adults in my life, they expressed their love, well wishes and strong belief that I was destined for great things. At that point no one had any reason to doubt that would be the case. I'd received a Most Likely to Succeed award from my peers, recognition from politicians and community leaders, local and regional media attention and a few special scholarships from my church and elsewhere. I was the poster child for the effectiveness of the Positive Youth Development stratagem.

As I've discussed elsewhere, the definition of disconnection is a broad one. It mostly focuses on the end result, but the causes are manifold. While there are typically a cascading series of events that lead a young person to opt out and stay out of the traditional path to success, a common trend I've witnessed in my work is that young people come to a Critical Moment. When you examine student records, you can almost narrow their history down to the exact day when they suddenly decided school was no longer a priority. Their attendance, once steady, starts to get spotty or unpredictable. Their grades go down. Occasionally, discipline problems escalate. Pinpointing these dates on a calendar allows for more informed counseling as you're able to simply ask a young person what happened at that moment. In many cases I've dealt with, there was something. Maybe they got involved with someone who had an outsized negative influence. Maybe they had a family member who disappeared from the home suddenly (sometimes due to death or incarceration). Maybe they abruptly relocated to a different region or school and had difficulty adjusting.  Invariably, the young person faces some form of significant upheaval and when it comes, the social supports around them are either inaccessible or inadequate to the task of salvaging their fragile sense of prioritization.

In my case, the circumstances leading up to my disconnection were far less dramatic, but when I faced my own Critical Moment, I blinked. It seems incomprehensible (and certainly contrary to youth development dogma) that someone so well heeled and connected could've had this circumstance befall them, but it happened. As I've finally come around to trying to right the course of my life, I've thought a lot about what went wrong back then and realized it wasn't that the process was ineffectual, but that I had abandoned it.

When the Critical Moment arrived after I left school, rather than returning to those caring, supportive adults who had guided and nurtured me, I avoided them like the plague. My church community, my teachers, and even some of my childhood friends were completely erased from my life. I refused to go anywhere near them. I didn't call or write and ducked the few entreaties they made at getting ahold of me. The irony is that these were the very people who would've worked with me to overcome any barriers and get back on the path to success.

Why did I do it? Because the shame and guilt of letting them all down weighed too heavily on me. I couldn't bear to face the people who had sacrificed and believed in me until I had achieved some undefined measure of success.  The years went by and I continued to avoid them. I promised myself I'd return, but not until I'd done something big. Something I could show them that would validate my decision to take a different path and not make me look like a colossal screw up.

My Uncle Bill passed away last Wednesday. Cancer had spread through his body and taken him not long after he'd joined my long infirm Aunt Lena is a nursing home. The news hit me like an earthquake in a year that's already been marred by its share of tragedies. I thought about the hubris that had kept me away all those years and how idiotic I'd been to delude myself into thinking the judgments I was casting on myself bore any relation to how the people who truly cared felt about me.

My Uncle Bill's last words to me, spoken over the phone over the holidays last year, were "We still love you, you know. Don't forget about us." I know you did Uncle Bill and I'm sorry I didn't have the courage to come and tell you I never forgot.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Reconnect Part II: Welcome to Scam U.

Adrift on a sea of false promises

Yesterday I bumped into a young man named Gary who used to be in the GED program I was affiliated with. I got to know Gary through the jiu jitsu classes I was teaching to a few of his friends. Like many disconnected young people, Gary left high school because he was dissatisfied with the environment, had some disagreements with his teachers and generally felt like his time could be better spent elsewhere.  When he came to the GED program he had already been out of school for awhile at age 19, but he pledged he'd be there every day because he was determined to get it done.

Within a couple weeks he'd vanished, both from the GED program and my jiu jitsu classes. It wasn't really clear to me then what had happened to him, but friends of his that I knew basically said he was being lazy. I spoke with him briefly after awhile and he indicated he had some family issues to take care of, but would be back soon. I never saw him again.

Until yesterday, that is. We ran into each other completely by chance. I was teaching a jiu jitsu lesson down in the South Bronx and he saw us rolling around on the mats through a window. I surmise that the light bulb of recognition that usually goes off in anyone's head who has done jiu jitsu (since we are an insular, almost cultish breed) went off in his. I saw him banging on the window and invited him in. We exchanged a few pleasantries and then I winced as I got ready to ask him the question I was dreading:

"Did you get your GED?"

Of course the answer was no, despite the year and a half that had passed since I'd last seen him. I began chiding him, gently at first, when he told me the reason he'd quit the GED program (his tutor had to leave early one day when he'd stayed late for extra help and he felt like they didn't care about him). He told me he was looking into finishing though and then dropped the bomb that he was going to enroll in TCI. That's when I started throwing punches.

Technical Career Institutes College of Technology (TCI), for those of you who don't know, is what's commonly known as a Proprietary College. It's less commonly known as a bootleg school that gives you less of an education than a community college at double to quintuple the price. Analogues here in New York City include Global Business Institute, Monroe College, Katharine Gibbs, Berkeley College, The Art Institute, Globe Institute of Technology and the New York Career Institute, among others.

If you clicked on any of the above links, notice the quality rating and its relationship to the tuition rating.

A semester at any of the schools in the City University of New York (CUNY) system will cost you about $5,430 a year, all of which will likely be covered by the federal Pell grant if you meet income requirements or the state Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) grant. A year at TCI or Monroe costs around $11,000. At Berkeley (and no, we're not talking about the famous one in California), about $20,000. At the Art Institute, $25,500. This tab is usually picked up by some creative work in the financial aid office.

Aside from the price, one of the biggest complaints about these institutions is that their accreditation is suspect at best. What this means in plain english is that your credits are unlikely to transfer if you decide to go to a real school and in some cases the programs they offer do not lead to a legitimate Associate's or Bachelor's degree, but a certificate that isn't worth the paper it's printed on.

The allure of many of these programs is that they have killer marketing programs that you can't help but notice if you take public transportation. If you've never bothered to do research, it's easy to be seduced by the promises of "flexible scheduling," a can-do spirit, a pipeline directly into a career and the ability to concurrently work on pursuing a college degree and completing your GED. These ads are targeted at single mothers, young minorities and working class adults more or less at the bottom of the career totem pole (charitably labeled "non-traditional students") and are widely considered by education professionals to be predatory on par with the verbiage of Countrywide Mortgage and check cashing places.

Government has finally twigged onto this problem and is attempting to crack down not only on the institutions themselves, but the accrediting agencies who allow them to operate. The Obama Administration took aim at this issue not long ago, proposing a tough set of new rules that would more clearly establish who was on the level and who wasn't, but then backed down when the final regulations were released after some intense lobbying pressure.

The proprietary college is an interesting nut to crack, particularly with the growth of online education and high unemployment forcing many (myself included) to seek education as a means of positioning themselves to better compete in this unforgiving economy. Forewarned is forearmed. I was fortunate to catch up with Gary before he dove down the rabbit hole. For more information on finding a free GED program in New York City check here. For legitimate programs that offer the opportunity to attend college even if you haven't completed high school, check out the State University of New York's community colleges, many of which offer 24 credit High School Equivalency programs.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Reconnect Part I

Not as easy as Yeezy

I'm a college dropout.

I don't like to admit it in writing because now, of course, those prospective employers scanning my ambiguously worded resume can simply Google their way to this knowledge, but it's a fact. It's who I am. In a way it defines me and all the choices I've made since that fateful decision way back when.

I remember enjoying wine, women and song a little too much as a college freshman. It was no surprise, really. When I went to college I was a virgin who'd never touched alcohol or drugs and had a fairly strict Baptist upbringing. I was a preacher's kid and seemingly well on the way to becoming a minister or maybe even Obama (before there was Obama). When I got to college I was surrounded by a lot of people who had a much freer interpretation of carpe diem than I had so I jumped in head first and had a ball.

But not really. Nostalgia's funny that way. In actuality, I spent most of my time in college disgusted. I drank a bit, but it was never really my thing the way it seemed to be for a lot of others. I picked my school because it had been listed as one of the top universities in California for creative writing, but the writing program was basically four classes and then it was a wrap. I became disenchanted fairly quickly with the whole thing and started to wonder why I was paying so much to take these weird classes at this hippie college where the students taught the classes just as often as the professors. It was also a major culture shock for me because I found myself as one of only a handful of students of color. While I certainly hadn't had ambitions to go to Morehouse, being so isolated made me feel perpetually uncomfortable, not for the first time in my life.

So I convinced myself that leaving was the best thing for me. After all, I was a hot young up and coming writer who'd been on television a couple times and knew how to read as well as anyone. College was a colossal waste of time, particularly since fame and fortune were doubtless just round the corner. There were also some serious financial considerations at play that would've made my staying an almost impossible burden on myself and my family.

Years later in my work at a Bronx based non-profit settlement house, I would learn a classification for young people in my situation. I was a disconnected youth. Most of the time when people use the term, they refer to high school dropouts and/or GED recipients, but the technical definition extends to young people 16-24 who are simply listing with no real plan other than getting away from whatever they're supposed to be doing because something (typically less important with the benefit of hindsight) came up.

In the intervening years I've scoffed at returning to school, mostly because I was still arrogant, broke and, at bottom, stupid. I hit a pay ceiling pretty early at my previous job and as I've tested the employment market lately on a few interviews, I've seen my lack of degree come back to slap me hard in the face. I could rail about how unfair it is that a piece of paper defines my capabilities when it's more or less plainly evident that I'm not a complete moron, but the game is what it is. Life has winners and losers and part of the job of the winners is to make sure it's a little harder for the losers to come up and take their spot, which is Darwinism (or maybe Spencerism) at its finest.

So as of this writing, I'm in the process of making my glorious return to the hallowed halls of academia. The path has thus far been fraught with self-doubt and head-scratchingly absurd complications, but I'm on it for the long haul. I'm going to chronicle my attempt to reconnect and go legit periodically on this blog and hopefully help some people avoid some of my missteps along the way.