Academic Preparation, Affirmative Action, Challenge Scholarship, College Board, College Retention, Coursework, ETS, Friendships, Internalized Racism, Internalized Sexism, Perseverance, Pitt, Predictability, Righteous Indignation, SAT, Self-Determination, Self-Discovery, Single-Minded
As this spring semester begins for me at UMUC — a cruel euphemism in January with a windchill around -10°C and a major winter storm approaching the Mid-Atlantic — I’ve reminded myself of the same calendar twenty-eight years ago. As I’ve already noted through my blog and through Boy @ The Window, this was to be a make-or-break semester for me. I had to step up my game at the University of Pittsburgh or go home. And by home, I mean to 616, a place in Mount Vernon, New York that might as well been my burial plot if I had managed to lose my Challenge Scholarship after that Winter Term 1988.
As I wrote in my book
Despite my advisor, I decided to take a full load of classes, balancing two math courses with two history ones, with “rocks for jocks” Geology being the fifth one. The others were Western Civ II, Roman History, Calculus II (the regular one, not Honors), and Logic.
It was to be a sixteen-credit semester. My advisor, a one-time PhD candidate in the History Department at Pitt (talk about life have no coincidences, past, present or future), thought that after my 2.63 first semester, that I had no business making my college schedule more difficult. But after four years of Sylvia Fasulo at Mount Vernon High School, I decided I was through taking advice about taking it easy. I might’ve not known much about my inner self in January ’88, but I knew this much. I was never the guy to take the easy, path-of-least-resistance road in my education. Fact is, I never had the choice of an easy road at any point in my life.
The only obviously easy course of the five I took was Geology 89, and it was only easy because it was a lecture hall course with three multiple choice exams and one textbook. Calc II — with its focus on integrals, volumes, spheres, and other pre-differential calculations — I figured would be easier than Honors Calc I, partly because I excelled on this part of the AP Calculus course the year before (I probably earned my 3 on the AP Calc BC exam on the strength of that work), and partly because this wasn’t an Honors course.
Then there was Logic. An ironic choice of a title, since the course didn’t make sense to me from day one. Inductive and deductive reasoning, so the British-born professor told us the first day. With so many symbols and few numbers, how could I consistently deduce an answer to any logic equation? And, what the heck did any of this have to do with being a Computer Science major, anyway?
As for Western Civ II and Roman History, I was surprised how easy I found both courses by the third week, especially after my debacle in East Asian History the month before. But then again, I didn’t miss a single class, I stayed ahead on my readings — and though I knew nearly half of the material going in — and studied as if I’d never been an A student in a history course before.
I had taken the shame of the first semester, the embarrassment of my internalized -isms and imperfections, the anger I directed toward myself, my family, and my idiot dorm mates and let it fuel me. I was on a righteous path of academic vengeance. At least that’s what I thought at the time.
That sober, almost single-minded focus got me noticed, even though it was my attempt at trying to lay low. I made quite a few friends that semester, most of whom I still call friend today. All of them anywhere between one and twenty years older than me. Call it a sense of maturity, my angered march toward my future, or the sense that I needed to be around folks whose lives had taken at least half as many twists and turns as my own. Whatever it was, I ended up on a path where having a social life would play as much a role in saving my educational future as showing up to all but four lectures in a sixteen-week semester.
I finished that second semester on the Dean’s List with a 3.33 GPA, and a first-year GPA of 3.02. Two A’s (my history classes), an A- in Geology, a B in Calc II, and a C+ in Logic (I did learn a few things even in that course). By the end of April, I was already thinking about switching majors to History. Of more immediate importance was my saving my scholarship for year number two. Not to mention, having friends of any significance for the first time since elementary school.
Affirmative action opponents from Supreme Court Justices Antonio Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Chief Justice John Roberts — as well as Allan Bakke, Jennifer Gratz, Barbara Gruttinger, and Abigail Fisher — all claim that efforts to use the admissions process to bring racial (and gender and socioeconomic) diversity to college campuses is discriminatory. The College Board and ETS cite their statistics to show that the SAT is especially predictive of a student’s performance in the first semester or first year. Anyone working on college retention — especially for underrepresented students — recognizes that nearly half of all students who drop out of college do so after the first two semesters.
I knew none of this my second semester at Pitt. No one could’ve predicted my first semester’s depression or the single-minded channeling of anger and intellectual resources my second, least of all me. And no, Justice Scalia, college at a school of the stature of the University of Pittsburgh wasn’t too hard for me. It wouldn’t have been too hard for me at any other university for that matter. Life was. And yes, Ms. Gratz and Ms. Fisher, race played a significant role in where I was, where I wanted to be, and how I got there. Just not to your entitled, narcissistic disadvantage.
As for ETS and the College Board, your predictions of my struggles and triumphs based on my 65th percentile 1120 score from October ’86 were more than a bit premature. And not just mine. Fact is, the vast majority of people like me attending predominantly White institutions graduate, whether the campus climate is welcoming or not. However, having a welcoming climate, just as the one I began to discover my second semester, really helps. I guess you couldn’t predict that.