The Fault in Our Education System

I almost dropped out of college. Wild decision, I know, because it was my last semester. I was so close to the finish line, so why would I drop out? Let me explain. 

I am a 20-year-old African-American woman about to earn her second degree, a bachelor’s in magazine journalism with a minor in creative writing. The fact that I’m in college at all is a major breakthrough in my family, but earning my second degree? It’s all eyes on me because I’m the first in my family to earn two degrees by the age of 20.

Like some college students adjusting to their newfound independence, free from their parents’ strict or watchful eye, I stumbled through classes, made mistakes, lost friends, gained some more, changed myself around, cried myself to sleep, questioned my major, and questioned my existence. I also spent late nights studying for tests, writing essays, hanging out in residence hall lounges, partying at strangers’ houses and exploring the city.

This may seem scary and concerning to parents sending their kids off to college, but this was my college experience. I cannot speak for everyone. I still earned an overall 3.6 GPA.

I did my best to stay organized and on top of my work, maintained a semi-consistent day-to-day schedule, and took breaks to have fun. I spent most of my time writing in journals created with Google Docs to document my experiences, thoughts and feelings. It was a healthy release.

But where did things go wrong?

A lot of things can go wrong when only 40% of black college students graduate within six years, especially when the same issue occurs in the UK.

“Black students are 1.5 times more likely to drop out than their white and Asian counterparts,” according to Georgina Lawton, a journalist from The Guardian

Colleges in the UK have acknowledged that black students may feel as if there is an “implicit bias or preference towards white students; a lack of cultural connection to the curriculum; difficulties making relationships with academic staff or students from different backgrounds; and financial and mental health stressors,” Lawton wrote.

However, they have only scratched the surface. The reasons behind a black college student’s decision to drop out are deeper than that, tracing back to issues from years, even centuries, ago.

Pressure

There is already a lot of pressure put on high school students to attend college. However, only 79% of black students graduate from high school, which is 10% less than white students and 12% less than Asian/Pacific Islanders. Add the black college student’s 40% graduation rate — as opposed to the average 60% — mix in the idea of being a black woman set to make 39 cents less than the full dollar of white men, and viola — you have created a nervous wreck trying too hard to prove she can beat the odds and bust through the glass ceiling.

I am not exactly a first generation college student either — on my mother’s side of the family, my much older sister earned her associate’s, a cousin of mine earned his bachelor’s over a decade ago, and two great aunts earned their college degrees — but I am the first of my family to earn two degrees by 20. Both of my parents attended some form of college, but did not receive a degree.

My achievement was unheard of to them. I attended Ben Davis University High School (BDU) from 2015 to 2017. It was a small school that contained around 300 students, and their program offered college credits to obtain an associate’s degree through Vincennes University. I was 17 when I graduated from BDU with a high honors diploma, and summa cumme laude from Vincennes with an associate’s in liberal arts.

“You have to work twice as hard to get half as far,” my mom told me when I was a kid. The statement sunk into to my brain and became a subconscious way of being. It is an “African-American aphorism” that many young, black kids hear while growing up, according to Christopher D. Desante in ‘American Journal of Political Science.’ Even former First Lady, Michelle Obama, referred to the statement’s impact in a speech she delivered in 2015.

I grew up in a single-parent household with my mom, who worked hard every day and night as an entrepreneurial seamstress, a nurse, then a factory worker. As far as I knew, living by that statement was how black women survived in the US. Despite facing a long history of racism, sexism, abuse, trauma and neglect, 80% of black mothers are the head of household in America. Hence, the “strong, independent black woman” stereotype that many black mothers have no choice but to uphold.

I took after my mom and worked as hard as I could to make something of myself. Doing well in school was the least I could do to repay her. My hard work paid off by the end of my high school career, but little did I know, college would be a different monster.

I promised myself I would graduate from a 4-year college. It was a personal goal, my mom’s dream and my dad’s expectation. It was also two of my older siblings’ dreams, who were both in their 30s, because they had either never lived on campus or had never attended college.

Fast forward to the middle of my final semester of college, I sat curled up in my desk chair, alone in my dorm, staring blankly at a wall. I was overwhelmed, burnt out from trying to balance finishing my assignments with facing emotionally heavy life events. I had put my mental health and emotional well-being before my work to heal, but I was starting to give up on myself. 

I can’t do this anymore. I thought. But I can’t drop out. I’ll disappoint everyone. What is the reason I’m here? To prove to myself and society that I can do these things? To meet their expectations? If I drop, I’ll let myself down. I’ll let my people down.

I didn’t just mean my family, I meant the black community. That 40% graduation rate loomed over my head like a guillotine. The pressure of college deadlines, overthinking things out of my control, deep-rooted insecurity and a crippling fear of failure forced my stress to cave in. My academic focus derailed. My “strong, independent black woman” persona cracked, and all the weight I had been carrying caved in on itself.

Call me Erykah Badu’s “Bag Lady.”

Finances

Black women graduate with the most student loan debt in the US, according to a study by the American Association of University Women (AAUW). They graduate with an average debt of $30,400, as opposed to $19,500 for white men.

What you want you, a house⁠? You, a car?

40 acres and a mule? A piano, a guitar?

Kendrick Lamar

I was livid the first time I read ‘The Souls of Black Folk’ by W.E.B. DuBois, who shared his knowledge, observations and experiences in America from the Jim Crow South in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. 

He wrote that, in 1865, Congress created the Freedman’s Bureau, a bill that promised 40 acres of land and a mule to “freedmen” — black men who were released from enslavement during the Civil War, with no home to go back to, nor an efficient way to make money. It was like receiving a stimulus check from the government during a pandemic, except the pandemic was black people being released from slavery.

Unfortunately, not everyone received 40-acres and a mule. After being freed from physical chains, the black community found themselves restricted with metaphysical chains. Despite working to pick themselves back up and survive on their own, racist neighbors did everything they could to keep freedman from advancing in their studies, activities, economics and lifestyles.

Over 100 years later, black families are still working to survive and create generational wealth in a society that, for centuries, worked just as hard to sabotage it. For single-parent households, child-support can only help so much, if the parent in question chooses to pay at all.

With this, there is a reoccurring theme of African-Americans born into poverty and low-income families. My mother grew up in poverty, as well as my grandmother and my great-grandmother. I was blessed to obtain scholarships and financial aid at all, though it was not enough for a full-ride, and we had not saved money for my education. Student loans were my last hope.

Generational Curses

Any reoccurring negative theme in a family meant to break instead of build the soul is a generational curse. For example, depression, anxiety, anger and jealousy were a few reoccurring themes I experienced while in college. I would have spoken to a counselor about my troubles, but on-campus time slots were slim. Time slots for therapy were more slim.

Moreover, there is an unhealthy stigma around mental health in the black community that forces many people to keep their struggles, problems and concerns under wraps. Who had time to wait a whole week for a therapy session that should have taken place generations ago? And who had the money to pay for a one hour session that could range from $60 to $250? Not me.

I journaled my thoughts to cope with my battles throughout college — mainly depression and anxiety. When I was in my sophomore year of high school, the deaths of Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown heavily impacted my sense of self-worth. Unarmed black teenagers, kids my age and younger, were dying on the news. I wondered if our existence held any significance outside of death and self-destruction.

I was sad, angry and terrified.

During my first year of college, I took antidepressants to counteract the negative energy, then waned off in my second year when I felt as if I could handle life without it. However, every problem I thought had been solved by antidepressants sat in a box, unchecked, at the back of my brain. They began to unpack without warning.

My first mistake was keeping most of my problems to myself in an attempt to uphold a facade that everything was okay. 

The first problem was that I viewed myself as less than my peers. My entire educational experience, until I attended college, was filled with books by white authors, movies about the significance of white people and history books filled with accomplishments by those of European descent. Dedicating my history to one month a year was not enough. In fact, the lack of representation I saw year-round, in and outside of school, lead to jealousy.

My insecurities became habits of casual self-deprecation, comparing myself to friends and expecting the worst in every scenario, including my academics. Self-sabotage turned me into my own worst enemy, and I had trouble believing in myself. Because of this, by the end of my second year of college, I had burned bridges with most of my friends, isolated myself and drowned in pity parties.

The second problem was that I accepted the love I thought I deserved. I found myself in situations where, if I believed I deserved better treatment, I could have avoided them altogether. There is no telling how many black scholars have felt outcasted by their peers for being “too black” or “not black enough” for their interests. Or for being “too loud” and outspoken about their opinions, or “too quiet” when involuntarily put on the spotlight in racially-charged discussions. 

Those factors, on top of potential stress with home and work life, could be futile to a student’s mental health and education without a healthy support system.

Are we too strong to not speak up when we are hurting? Too strong to ask for the respect we truly deserve? 

Too often I put other’s needs and expectations before my own. I people-pleased often and kept most of my frustrations hidden. It was a toxic practice. I had a lot to be angry about, yet tried my best to avoid becoming an “angry black woman.” Acknowledging the true weight of own pain was my first step to self-love, self-healing and freedom.

Ancestral Trauma

Imagine this: You are in your second year of college, taking a class about black history for the first time in your life. You are ecstatic. Until then, you were never taught the importance of Nguzo Saba or that the Pan-African flag exists — a flag meant to unify all people of African descent. You feel seen for the first time in your life.

pan african flag
The Pan-African Flag. Red represents the blood of our ancestors, black represents everyone of African descent, and green represents the fertility of Africa.

Then you learn about 40 acres and mule and tie it directly to your present financial setbacks. You learn that Malcolm X’s last name is not actually “X.” You realize that your last name might not actually be your last name, but your ancestors’ slave owner’s last name. You learn that colonizers failed to keep record of your ancestors and mixed tribes to sabotage their communication.

You realize you have no true connection to your heritage. You have an identity crisis. 

Who am I?

I had taken black sociology, SOC 499, in an attempt to learn more about my history. I did not grow up in a house filled with African relics. There were few paintings of black dancers, a few candle holders in the shape of African families and a white angel. I grew up on B.E.T., cartoons, anime, old-school music and gospel. We did not celebrate Kwanzaa.

Dr. Joy DeGruy coined the term Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome (P.T.S.S.), “a theory that explains the etiology of many of the adaptive survival behaviors” in African-Americans and other people of the Pan-African Diaspora. This theory grew from the result of “the belief that African Americans were inherently/genetically inferior to whites,” which lead to themes of “vacant esteem… marked propensity for anger and violence… racist socialization and internalized racism.”

Having my kinks and curls flat-ironed until I reached high-school, then put in protective styles to hide the heat damage until my second year of college contributed to this belief of inferiority. I grew up under the impression that my brown skin was not beautiful and would automatically set me up for failure in the world. There was an immense disconnect from my roots, and a struggle to believe there was worth to the black body at all.

Ancestral trauma was masked by internalized racism and personal neglect. There was a constant need to fight for what you loved and believed in to survive, no matter how tired you were. You had to work twice as hard to achieve dreams outside of what others expected of you. You had to be strong and independent, for not only yourself, but for others.

I struggled a lot more than I let on in college, but was blessed to have met and spoke with staff, peers, friends, family and strangers who helped push me forward and realize my true worth. 

Healing

Maybe getting sent home in my last semester of college, due to COVID-19 concerns, was a blessing in disguise. I was burnt out, planning to drop out after the stress from balancing work with my mental health caved in. It wasn’t until I was back at home that all of my problems began to make sense. I had allowed insecurities and learned “survival” behavior to negatively effect my college experience.

I learned that the presence of another person’s success or beauty did not indicate the absence of my own; that settling for any form of disrespect, or people pleasing in order to keep the peace, was unacceptable; and that I should face my negative emotions instead of pushing them away. I was trying my best to be okay, but that facade only lasted for so long.

The least I could do was acknowledge that my struggles were rooted deeper than I thought.

As advice for universities across the nation, and parents of the Pan-African Diaspora, check on your black scholars. Teach them to love their heritage before they leave. Encourage their interests. Teach them to love their natural hair and the color of their skin. Teach them their history year-round, instead of allowing education systems to restrict their significance to one month. 

Above all else, the least you can do is lend an ear. My experience is only one of many black scholars who may struggle with the same thoughts. I just so happen to document mine in journals to cope when I felt as if I had no one to talk to. 

These are only a few of many reasons why a black college student may choose to drop out, from the words of a black college student who almost did.

And a message to black scholars, who may or may not have graduated: You are loved. You are seen. Do not give up on yourself, even if the odds are against you.

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