To Be Young, Gifted and Black — Is it enough to succeed in college and career?
Remember back in the 70’s when the song “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” by Nina Simone came out? It was written in memory of Simone’s late friend Lorraine Hansberry, author of the play Raisin in the Sun. The song became a Civil Rights anthem and I remember walking around the house singing it with a lot of pride. That song made every Black child feel like they were worth something even when we knew there would be a lot of hurdles ahead of us.
While I am extremely proud of the work TAF has done to get students of color into STEM majors and STEM fields, I continue to be reminded that things haven’t changed much when it comes to being an African American in a prestigious university or in a workplace where African Americans are not expected to be.
The most recent reminder came when TAF Alum Patrick Matthews came home from a semester break at Notre Dame. He’s a senior majoring in Civil Engineering. His girlfriend (Ashley) is also a senior and is now in the throes of applying to medical schools. Both of them had the same experience at Notre Dame (which has an African American student population of a whopping 3.4%).
Patrick grew up in South Seattle and attended public schools in that area, which is mostly students of color and primarily African American. Ashley grew up in the Midwest and attended parochial schools all her life and was used to being the only African American in pretty much all her classes. Their experiences at Notre Dame were exactly the same–feeling like they were seen as outcasts, only admitted because of affirmative action, and for Patrick, the assumption was he came because of sports. Ashley, already having experience in this type of environment, has been able to deal with it. Patrick on the other hand has struggled, but found it best to hang with the few students he’s found that have the same background–birds of a feather.
When we asked Patrick to write a piece for our donor investment brochure last year, this is what he wrote:
To say that TAF has had a great impact on my life would be a gross understatement. Choosing to attend TAF was one of the greatest decisions I could have made (or made for me). It was far from easy, but I truly believe that the road I chose brought me to the point I am at now. Whether it was algorithm development in middle school with Zithri (TAF’s Education Director), C# programming with Larry (former Technical Teens Internship Program instructor), or even lounging around with Lynn (former teacher) and the other students before classes began, each of these experiences had a lasting impact and helped me develop socially and intellectually.
Professionally, TAF also put me in a position that many people my age couldn’t relate to. Being given the chance to go through rigorous interviews and intern with Fortune 500 companies boosted my confidence and let me know that as an intelligent man of color I had a place in the professional world. While I sometimes wonder what would have happened had I chosen to pursue varsity sports over TAF and where it could have taken me, I have no regrets in the decision that I made. I learned that not only is it okay for a young black man to reject sports for intellectual pursuits, but it is also okay to aspire for things greater than social expectations based on the color of my skin or athletic ability.
I credit TAF for not only preparing me to attend one of the country’s most prestigious universities, Notre Dame, but also for giving me the strength to pursue a STEM major (Civil Engineering) despite the department’s uniform complexion.
The last part of the last paragraph tells the bigger story. While we as a country are all hyped up about getting kids to college, teaching kids to code, etc. we’re paying little attention to the sociological and psychological affect being the “only” has on our students of color. When you are the only (or maybe 1 of 3) African American in a “high achieving” academic environment, there are a lot of assumptions that come with you and there are additional hurdles you much jump. Claude Steele has done a great amount of research on this in his book “Whistling Vivaldi”.
TAF does more than get kids academically ready for college. We get them mentally ready to face the inevitable issues they will face no matter how young and gifted they are. But something else has to give. We need to change societies view of who belongs and who doesn’t.
We adults need to lead by example.
Students watch us, they watch TV and movies, they read magazines, they’re online. In all these places we adults have told them that people of color–particularly African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans–are not important in our culture, are not smart, are to be treated as second class, and have not contributed to our country in any meaningful way. So it makes sense that when an intelligent young black man like Patrick shows up on a college campus, the assumption is that he must be an athlete. We haven’t told or shown generation after generation any different.