Last week, the delight of ice cream interrupted one of my generally busy workday afternoons. My department hosted an ice cream social, and after a bit of convincing from a friendly grad student and the melodious call of Blue Bell, I found myself holding a dripping vanilla cone in the middle of a crowd of undergrads, grad students, and professors, few of whom I knew, even by name. I was drawn toward my lab mates like a magnet to… a bigger magnet. Being one of the younger people in my lab, I was exiled to the little kid circle with three undergrads who had just started work in June, essentially strangers to me. Prompted by the name of the event, I took a stab at socializing with the guys, who had just returned from a short excursion around campus in the name of Pokémon Go. I quietly enjoying their frenzied geekiness for a few minutes, when one of them suddenly paused and said to me apologetically, “we must be boring you out of your mind.”
Despite my insistence on the contrary, the conversation turned to my academic life: what was I doing in the lab, especially as a high schooler? Did I take a course in this subject in school? How was my high school? I had grown used to answering these kinds of questions, replying that I felt fortunate to live in a city with such a prestigious research university and that the teachers, administration, and curriculum at my high school were all excellent, allowing and preparing me to take time off during the school day to enroll in classes at the university and to hold a position in one of its labs. One of the guys, looked quite stunned after I had finished talking and said wistfully, “I would have done anything to go to a high school like that.”
Daniel told us that he had grown up in a small town at the southern-most border of Texas, a place so small that its name would certainly not ring a bell for any of us. His school had offered only a few AP courses, and the school’s average scores on the tests were almost universally below passing. As the valedictorian of his class, however, he had tried to make the best of what his surroundings had to offer, taking classes at a local community college and earning an associate’s degree along with his high school diploma. Coming to a university like this one and working in a lab was pretty much a dream, for more reasons than just the high school he came from. His father, apparently the sole bread-winner in his household, has a job as pipeline worker. No one in the family has been to college. He told us about the classes he is taking and how much more rigorous they are than the equivalents he had taken back home, reiterating how much he wishes he had grown up in this town, gone to my high school, and taken classes here as soon as he could.
I’m sure most of my peers are quite familiar with this kind of story, but actual hearing it told by someone who had lived it, is living it, meant so much more to me than any vague concept of some John Doe struggling to gain the opportunity that others so easily take for granted. Hearing the conviction in his voice as he told us his story left no doubt in my mind that his determination will lead him to success. As someone in a place of my privilege, academic and otherwise, I hope I will have the ambition to achieve something worthy of my upbringing. Maybe hoping isn’t enough.