Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Little Mexican Girls

By Andrew Grant-Thomas, Deputy Director at the Kirwan Institute

I had known that Maria was busy putting the finishing touches on her PhD in Social Policy at a top university in Boston. The degree has been a long time coming but, come September, her graduate school story figures to end on a high note.

What I hadn’t known was that none of her post-graduation plans relates to her doctoral work or even to “social policy.” Why, then, insist on finishing the PhD at considerable cost in time, and perhaps also in money, self-esteem, lost opportunities, relationship and family stresses, and more?

Two big reasons. One, Maria said, was simply that she really enjoyed the study, the learning, the working-things-out. The second reason emerged in a story.

Some years after leaving Harvard as an undergraduate, Maria contacted the registrar’s office about getting a copy of her transcript. What arrived was her entire file, including parts no student is meant to see. These extra bits included notes submitted by the Harvard recruiter who had visited her Arizona high school a decade earlier. The woman had kept meticulous notes, which included the following (paraphrased) observations:

Unlike other top students in her class, Maria has applied only to a few schools, all of them in-state, none highly selective. I asked the guidance counselor, Mr. X, why she hadn’t applied to any Ivy League schools. His answer: “How’s a little Mexican girl going to make it in the Ivy League?”

Maria tears up – 21 years after Mr. X offered that assessment; 20 since becoming the first in her family, headed by her Mexican immigrant dad and “white farmer mom from Idaho” to go to college; 20 since becoming the first from her high school accepted to mighty Harvard; 16 years after graduating magna cum laude; one month shy of completing her PhD.

Every time she had considered quitting, Maria said, she remembered.

Institutions, systems, racialization, implicit bias, colorblindness, racial resentment, frames, opportunity structures, culture, history, targeted universalism, equity– yes, absolutely. These are our crucial tools, the conceptual and practical building blocks of our efforts.

However, Maria’s story reminds me that, ultimately, we work for people – for our families, for our communities, for ourselves, and for a world full of “little Mexican girls.”

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