By Marcia Y. Cantarella, PhD, Author, I CAN Finish College: The Overcome Any Obstacle and Get Your Degree Guide
A long time ago I took on the role as head of the Academic Achievement Program at NYU. The program was small and targeted Black and Hispanic students in the college. But it was not then clear about whether it was remedial or quite what it was. Giving it some thought the question in my mind was why would Black and Hispanic students who had gotten into NYU in the first place be assumed to need remediation. The idea implied that there was something about them that needed to be fixed. That did not make any sense. And so that was the question that we decided to take on. The positioning of AAP became the program that would prove that Black and Hispanic students could thrive at a predominantly white institution despite what anyone thought ( and to be honest, despite the evidence of lower retention rates for these students.) But we said we were going to disprove this myth that these students could not survive. And so we did.
We took an attitude that was frankly defiant and a bit arrogant. We said that these were in fact high potential students who could go the distance anywhere. And so they did. In fact, most from those early cohorts that I knew well are now PhDs, MDs, JDs, social workers, business leaders and educators. I assume this is true for later cohorts as well. We not only retained students, we showed that they could achieve at full potential.
At Princeton we identified women and minority students who never thought of themselves as being much and led them to win top honors as Rhodes, Marshall, and Fulbright Scholars among others. They had all come in for the discussion about their potential with the question – “what me, really?” And then they went on to do it.
Over and over I have seen what can happen when students are told that they have actually got lots of potential. They begin to blossom. Infused with that shift in attitude which many have never experienced they begin to walk taller and dream bigger.
A student at Hunter whose dreams were of being a Physical therapist, was spotted by a professor who saw his potential in his lab work. The student is now pursuing his doctorate.
The media representations of people of color has so denigrated the image of the potential for success that it not only seems alien but defiantly black males especially reject the idea of their own promise. Students in the CUNY Black Male Initiative have spoken of the program as their safe space to be smart. They could not have the same conversations or envision their real dreams in the communities they come from because the idea of having potential has been lost. It may have been beaten out of them in unloving schools or by parents whose own aspirations have been shattered.
But there are many of us, including Yvette Jackson, author of the Pedagogy of Confidence who believe that if you infuse students with a sense of confidence and belief in themselves and that someone else believes in them too they can do extraordinary things.
We have seen it over and over. I saw the light shining in his eyes recently when a young black man was accepted into an honors program that he never envisioned for himself. He is brilliant but did not know how much or that he belonged in a community of other brilliant people. When you say the words—heartfelt—“you can do this. Let me show you how…” miracles happen.
We all have potential far greater than most of us imagine. But for some of us the threshold of imagining is lower than for others. Our national crisis of educational performance may be actually a crisis of confidence.