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College Preparation and Work Culture: Why do they leave?

“Students now come to college not to get a degree or even knowledge, but to get a job. That is all students—whether at Yale or Phoenix. Vocationally oriented community colleges and for-profit schools have got this piece very right. This reality is driving much of their popularity. This is especially true for first generation, low income and students of color. Their families want them to get the traditional job—doctor, lawyer, businessman.  I remember one student at Princeton who grew up in the Bronx and was getting his doctorate in bio physics at Columbia and his parents kept asking when he was going to get a real job. They could not understand that his job was to spend time in the library and to sit waiting for his experiments to gel or whatever they were supposed to do. This is not the vision of work that most families have.

Large research universities and liberal arts colleges are creators of knowledge but are often slow to adapt to new things themselves.  They create the trends and then may be the last to jump on the train.  So, while the world has changed in term of the workplace and career paths and the financing of education and even who goes to college, the faculty in these institutions have not necessarily caught up. Thus, they may not appreciate the vocational focus and anxiety that students and their families are now bringing to the academy. Part of it is driven by the vocational uncertainty that is now part of the work landscape in ways it was not in the past.”

The above was taken from a blog I did in 2012. The situation continues to exist but there is much more attention being paid to the preparation for life after college than ever before. However, the work being done is still problematic. For one thing there is still an underlying assumption of a linear and long, term career path. That ship has sailed long ago. Few will stay in the same jobs, firms, fields over a lifetime. Medical doctors, teachers, perhaps social workers might. Note that those are all service professions and that those in them are generally there for love of what they do and the gratification of the outcomes.  Certainly, for teachers and social workers they are not there for the pay. In Studs Terkel’s celebrated book Working published in 1974, it is clear in the interviews of those in fields like these, that they have the satisfaction of service.

There are those too who have inherent skills that may range from sculpture and playwriting to plumbing and mechanics who find enough gratification in that work to maintain it for a lifetime—the plumbers being more stably and gainfully employed perhaps than the playwrights.

But today others in fields that are characterized as corporate—finance, retail, technology which may dominate the workplace landscape are the best paid and often most transient and least happy. There are certainly companies, Google comes to mind, that try to assure workplace satisfaction.

But part of the issue, I think lies in the fact that students are not taught what the workplace is actually like and why. Parents rarely have talked about what they did all day—glad to get home and away from the grind. Events like “Take Your Child to Work Day” give a sugar coated view. So, the tasks that may be boring or the interminable meetings that seem to lead nowhere or the bosses that terrorize or the cliquishness of colleagues to say nothing of the disruptive new technologies are unknown until one is actually in the job. This is especially true for those who are first generation to go to college and thus first in their families to find themselves in major corporate – or even start-up settings. They have no frame of reference to deal with the highly politically charged workplace, now in a volatile state of constant change with every new technological advance. Those who at least had parents who worked for Fortune 500 or smaller firms may have an inkling. But these are not generally the first gen, low-income and students of color that are increasingly our college populations and hence moving into these workspaces post-graduation.  But when they reach that dual holy grail—college graduation and a job in a recognized firm/industry they are not staying.

Industry specific observations in, for example, the advertising and marketing space points to serious problems even in an environment that one would expect to be culturally attuned. But the low starting salaries are a deterrent. And so being not culturally aware marketers continue to make blunders like H&M’s “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle” with a Black child as the model. Some places like Minneapolis have seen diverse hires leave because of the environment being culturally sterile or even unwelcoming.

This is not only an ethnic issue. Women are still not in significant senior level roles in major firms in the ratios one might expect 50 plus years after the legal barriers to their presence were removed. ME TOO has cast a light on some of the issues women deal with.  Hence, they create their own firms or gravitate to smaller ones that might be more friendly. Perhaps consequently they are the greatest creators of new businesses.

Savvy firms have begun to talk about Diversity and INCLUSION. The evidence is in that better decision making comes from diverse teams. Command and control, once the model for management no longer fits with millennial workers and those who follow. Indeed, those graduating college now are outspoken and political as those of us who graduated in and after the turbulent ‘60’s.  That process of becoming inclusive has to begin before college graduates graduate. Faculty have a role in this. Administrators have a role in assuring there is exposure to internships and meeting alumni and finding other ways to expose students to what they will find in the “real world”. And companies have to find ways to begin before hiring, to share what it is “really” like in their firms and how best to navigate the shoals that will certainly be there.

So, I am going to restate slightly amended recommendations that I made in that 2012 blog directed to faculty and add a couple more.

  • Teaching vocationally — explaining how skills get applied in the workplace. It is important to engage students in experiential, applied, and community- based learning opportunities to show how disciplines are applied in the “real world”.  Students today learn differently.  They learn online, they have shorter attention spans and so the pure lecture format is not always the best. One course I taught did not come together until the students had to go into the community to do projects that helped them see for themselves how the disparities of social class really functioned beyond the texts I had assigned.  This is especially useful for adult learners, who can relate better to experiential learning.  And adult learners or returning students is a growing number – maybe the majority of students now entering college.

Part of teaching vocationally is to be interdisciplinary and to use teams. Collaboration with colleagues in different departments to team teach is exciting.  Take an example—Civil Rights. What if that were team taught by professors from Economics, History, English and Art.  How cool would that be for a student. Or one that intrigued a former student of mine pulling together Geography, Computer Science and the Environment. Bryn Mawr College has, now as a hallmark, it’s 360 courses. A subject is taught from a 360 degree perspective by a team of faculty from very different disciplines and the course ends with a “capstone’ that is in the “real” world. It may be a project with the Philadelphia public schools or mounting a major art exhibit.  It is how the real workplace functions— in teams of people coming from many different perspectives. Students should be given team-based projects where they bring their own diversity of skill and experience to problem-solving on an assignment and they should see this as a workplace simulation. Clinical professors who have one foot in the workplace and one in the academy are useful and this can inform these faculty with insights they can take back to their workplaces as well as offer them more gratification.

Teaching vocationally also means using technology to build technology skills among students. Students use technology every day.  Those skills can be pushed in the work assigned. Employers not only check to see if students have an online presence on Facebook or LinkedIn (a clean one) but also how adept they are at using varied tools like Doodles to schedule meetings, or Powerpoint, or video conferencing, or researching on Lexus/Nexus  or other tools as a baseline for employment.

  • Partner with other college offices –career office, counseling services, even the library.  Faculty can help students to take advantage of the resources they may not on their own. They can encourage students to go to events (often under-attended regardless of how much pizza we serve) where high profile individuals or alumni will be speaking. This is a networking opportunity for students. Students need to know how to network—introduce themselves appropriately, engage in conversation and follow up. Sometimes faculty can take the class to the event or make it part of an assignment.  I used to make one class session meet in the library prior to assigning final papers.  Professors can direct a student to the writing center.  Professors should ask the Career or Alumni office for a list of alumni who majored in their field and what they have done with their degrees so they can answer the “what to do with this major question” with real stories.

In addition, find ways to engage students in workplace settings or with recent alumni to hear from students like themselves what it is like and to feel the spaces and whatever vibe it puts out. Firms should send the worker bees and not just the recruiters to visit campuses. Those they send should be ready to engage in some level of mentorship following the visit. The Associate Board of READ Alliance is made up of young corporate employees who can engage with the READ teen tutors who are college bound and let them know what to expect on the other end. They find it is gratifying to them to do this work.  Organizations like Project Basta, Futures and Options and BUILD all work to give youth real workplace exposure, build connections, understand processes and cultures. But these programs themselves are under resourced and so only can reach a drop in the bucket of college going first gen, low-income and students of color. Supporting and expanding them would be helpful too.

The issue is not just getting into and graduating from college for first gen, low-income and students of color. It is getting into and thriving in the workplace once they do.



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1968 Revisited with an Eye to 2018

Marcia Y. Cantarella, PhD

As our 50th Bryn Mawr reunion rolled around many of us were stunned to realize that it had been that long. And so of course reflections began. And, not surprisingly they took a political slant. When our class entered Bryn Mawr in 1964 we had all sorts of rules about attire (skirts for class), social life (no boys in rooms and curfews), ladylike behavior (tea time, meals served by African American maids.) When we left in ’68 all that was gone. We were the class that came in already involved in antiwar and civil rights activities. We came in on a wave of Beatles music and were the generation of peace and love. We marched, we fasted, we attended teach-ins. Some of us were radical in our activities and some of us interned for legislators as I did for Bobby Kennedy. Our second month on campus we were taking part, as a campus, in election activities working phones to take returns from various Philadelphia precincts. This was not everyone for sure, but enough to make a real mark on the campus culture. And our activities made a mark on us.

In the run up to reunion several of us were talking about then and now. How the Parkland students, and the Me Too movement and Black Lives Matter all represent things we were doing fifty years ago. For some of us our grandchildren were marching with us in opposition to gun violence, or for women’s rights (we had been there at the beginning of the women’s movement too) or to preserve the rights of Black and Brown people being harassed at every turn.

So we thought it would be interesting to have a panel discussion at reunion to share our experience, stimulate discussion and action, and to hopefully encourage and empower those students in classes behind ours to be engaged. The college liked the idea as a launch into reunion weekend. They had one stipulation that there be an alumnus from a younger class who would moderate the panel from a different generational perspective. And so my stepdaughter Maratea, class of ’89 was chosen.

She was perfect. She is a staunch activist herself, coming from a family of activists including my father the late Civil Rights leader, Whitney Young and her own dad, my late husband Francesco, who was a corporate change agent for 40 years. She came to the panel wearing her “Nasty Woman” t-shirt and armed with shirts she had worn to various protests and the remaining pussyhats left over   from the dozens she had knit and sold to benefit Planned Parenthood.

What she elicited from us was a discussion of how our becoming “woke” during our college years shaped our entire lives. One classmate was part of the Weather Underground for several years after graduation until pregnancy led her back home to Seattle and a nursing career followed by a marriage that led her to embrace her unwavering political views through thoughtful philanthropy.  Another  two went on to law school with one being in the forefront of thought on sexual discrimination and the other a labor lawyer who cut her teeth taking on textile unions in the south. And I was the fourth with a career that began with engagement in corporate responsibility work and then higher education focusing on enhancing the experiences of students of color. None of us lost our activist tendencies and all have passed on the germ to our children and now theirs.

However we all feel that it is not about us anymore. We want to see our children and theirs doing what we did. We take heart in the Parkland students. We want to see the young people who came out for Obama and Bernie Sanders do it again. We want to see local engagement. For us making changes on our campus – helping the Black maids and porters who served us to move to jobs of more meaning and responsibility and less subservience was local engagement in change. We obviously took it further as we left campus. But we each found our niche causes to give focus to. We hope that while some of us have aching joints and replaced knees and hips, younger folks will do the heavy lifting of door to door canvassing. We are encouraged to see women, including others from Bryn Mawr, running for office and that people who are very young  are giving it a shot. We have had some legislators and judges among our classmates and some mayors among other college alumni.  If the 60s represented our moment then this is another time for youth activism supported by the same kinds of folks, whether Pete Seeger or Pauli Murray who were pioneers raising voices and supporting us. Everywhere there should be folks like Alexandra Ocasio-Ortez breaking into the ranks of local politics but supported by women like, Bryn Mawr alumna, veteran politician Minneapolis Mayor Betsey Hodges. Our classmate Drew Faust leaves her role as Harvard President with four new Black women deans in place. We can support driving change in all kinds of ways.

At the end of our panel discussion we gave out a list of source material—bloggers, organizations, news forums that we found to be balanced (well maybe, nuanced to the left of center…) and credible. We encouraged people to read and speak up and “share truth to power.”

But comes the downside. There are those who feel betrayed by the fact that, in their minds and experience, the Democratic party did not go far enough during the Obama years. On the other hand many who voted for the President did not vote during the  midterms and gave away a legislative majority that could have done far more. Once upon a time we taught Civics in elementary schools so that folks understood how it all worked and our own roles in the process but those courses are gone now. So people do not understand the political process. (Interestingly on our reunion panel three of us were Political  Science majors and one did Anthropology.) When we, Black folks,  were fighting for the right to vote in the south in the 1960s we understood every nuance with the fervor of those with a vested interest. But when the focus of one’s life has to be on just surviving it is hard to muster the will and energy to engage in fickle political action. Many disillusioned voters reacted against the “establishment”,  represented by Hillary Clinton, or so they thought in the 2016 election but instead ended up entrenching  powerful forces who do not have at heart the things that are truly on the minds of most citizens who are not wealthy. Many more, including people of color, did not vote at all.

So the powerless remain powerless. Unless we go old school again. One of the things that most impacted me during the 60’s was the “Teach In” where on campuses faculty and others met students outside class hours to teach us about the Vietnam war. This was important to me in a special way. My dad was civil rights leader Whitney Young. Daddy was a WWII veteran and thought about the troops who were there. Many of these troops were Black men who had no way to avoid the draft. He did not want to demean their service by speaking in opposition to the war. He traveled to Vietnam twice to show his support for these Black enlisted men and, as a veteran,  he always wore military fatigues on these visits to hospitals and barracks. His position was also made tricky by his ties to the Johnson administration. He was the voice and force behind Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty which incorporated much of what daddy had articulated as a Domestic Marshall Plan referring to the rebuilding of Western Europe after WWII using US aid. Daddy got Johnson on board with his ideas of domestic investment in the poor and blighted neighborhoods. He did not want to upset that  relationship. So when he found himself on a dais at a dinner sitting  with McGeorge Bundy, the Under Secretary of State,  rather than stating any views of his own on the war he used me as proxy. He told Bundy what his Bryn Mawr daughter thought. Then after the dinner he introduced me to Bundy as the daughter whose views he had shared. Then daddy walked off. He left me to continue to share all I had learned in my campus teach ins. (Many years later my husband and I met Bundy at a dinner and told him that story and to his credit he responded… “And history proved you right.” ) The point is I had become informed about the issues on campus outside classroom hours.

There is evidence that when the poor or low-income folks mobilize they often win. The numbers are in their favor. And there are issues out there that relate to poverty threats like health care, criminalization of petty crimes, disparities in educational systems and access with its implications for work, technology as a threat to work, the environmental crisis impacting weather and quality of life,  and the elephant in the room (pun intended)— income disparity counter to the whole vision of the American dream.

If the young took it upon themselves to disseminate information that is balanced and easy to understand  that alone would be helpful  if that is done along with clear awareness of where candidates stand locally, on local issues. Then maybe another shift could occur. We of the old guard would be happy to teach in community forums or craft materials that are clear and balanced to disseminate in the old school door to door, neighbor to neighbor way. Social media may not be the only or best way to proceed especially given threats of tampering. Operating intergenerationally,  we might just do something to preserve what we say we believe our national values to be.

However such a strategy also means crossing lines of race, income, age, or  gender to find allies. If we look at the photos taken at the various marches for women, or in opposition to gun violence or in opposition to punitive immigration policies we see an amalgam of people of all ages, gender orientation, ethnicities.  We can do this. We did it 50 years ago and then fumbled the ball and let the bad guys win. We need to do it again.




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Not So Little Women

As she approached her 60th birthday my Bryn Mawr classmate Kit Bakke was being introspective in the way we often are at significant birthdays. She was looking to see where her role models and inspirations had been and not surprisingly hit upon Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women among many other books about feisty women that she wrote in the 1870s and 80s.  Every woman I know of my generation read Little Women.  It was made into at least two fabulous films, one starring June Allyson and one Katherine Hepburn in the role of the irrepressible Jo March whom we all wanted to be. Kit identified however, with the author who had worked for women’s rights, was an abolitionist, a nurse briefly in the Civil War, and ultimately a writer. Kit had been an activist in college—a member of the Weather Underground, a pediatric oncology nurse and a writer. So she wrote a book called Miss Alcott’s Email in which she miraculously communicates with Miss Alcott over time and space about what they shared and what was different. It was a book that seemed written for our age group, those of us who were of the early baby boom wave growing up in the  40s and 50s and sliding toward adulthood in the sixties.

I grew up on Alcott—read everything she wrote and I have visited Orchard House where she grew up in Concord, MA. She lived a stone’s throw from her mentor  Ralph Waldo Emerson’s house and Walden Pond where her friend Thoreau hung out. I sat at the desk where they say she wrote Little Women. When I was awarded  my doctorate in American Studies my wise husband took me to the Concord Cemetery where they are all modestly buried along with Nathaniel Hawthorne in a plot the size of a small New York bedroom.

Jo March, her protagonist was also the central character in the two sequels—Little Men and Jo’s Boys.  Jo was a contrarian who hated to do those things women were supposed to do. She was a rebel. In the sequels she heads a school for boys that is non-traditional and economically diverse and liberal in its pedagogy. There was something about her breaking the rules of what was expected of women that drew us all in.

But she was not the only character that we grew up with that did that. There was also Nancy Drew, the detective who lived with her lawyer father and solved crimes as a teen. I am sure she is responsible for my love of Janet Evanovich’s much racier mystery series now. Anne of Green Gables ultimately grew up, married her childhood sweetheart Gilbert Blythe and had a family but on her terms having gotten a college education, worked for her own money, lived away from home and broken all sorts of rules along the way. The little girls Betsy, Tacy and Tibb  of the series bearing their name  authored by Maud Lovelace, ran around all over their town and countryside all by themselves having adventures in the late 1800s and early 1900s. There was nothing demure or restrained about them.

I am sure that Jane Austin and the Bronte’s whose women were also rule breakers had the same appeal for us and remain timeless. Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Secret Garden and Little Princess  , with their brave girls, were childhood staples for us and reappear today.

My parents insisted when I was about 8 that for every 3 books of fiction I took out of the library I had to take out one  non-fiction and that led me to biography and the “orange books”. They are actually called the Childhood of Famous American’s series and are now in blue paper backs as opposed to the orange hardcovers that I knew. There I found Jane Addams, Molly Pitcher, Dolly Madison, Florence Nightingale and, of course,  Louisa Alcott. I am amazed by how many of my friends also knew and loved “the orange books” and how many of them are also writers and educators and activists.

These were the books—to name a few—that were read and loved by my generation. We often think of The Feminine Mystique as the clarion call of the women’s movement, but I think it came before.

When my class entered Bryn Mawr in 1964 it was at the peak of the seven sisters women’s colleges—the women’s counterpart to the all male Ivy League. We had made a choice to go to a women’s school which had a history of marrying off its graduates appropriately, maybe sending some off to grad school but also preparing them to be women who were generally unsung leaders (except Katherine Hepburn) in all sorts of fields including the military. As we arrived at the college the rules were in place to assure that the MRS would be as valid for us as our BA or maybe MA or PhD. The thought was that educated men should have educated wives to keep them company.  There was a marriage course required for seniors, strict curfews, permission required for weekends at Princeton or other appropriate Ivies, no men in the dorms outside the public rooms and  skirts required for class unless there was a foot of snow.  We even had African American maids cleaning our rooms and serving our meals. By 1968 when our class graduated none of those rules or practices applied. People slept over at Haverford, wore jeans to class and maybe shoes or maybe not. Once the existing staff was appropriately redeployed in good jobs around campus, we cleaned our own rooms and waited tables ourselves.

We were Miss Alcott’s army of Josephine Marches. We were going to wear our hair long and free, and wear pants if we wanted and have real jobs. We would march against the Vietnam War or for Civil Rights. We would become feminist attorneys, Ivy Deans and presidents, corporate leaders, groundbreaking scientists, political analysts, judges, NY Times columnists, and philanthropists making our own decisions about money as did Louisa Alcott’s Rose in her Rose in Bloom.

At the time sending us off to a women’s college, our families thought it was all very genteel. But, that class entering college in 1964 was raised on the literature of female hell-raisers. Seeds had been planted of rebelliousness and a different view of what girls/women could and should do and what we should stand for and/or tolerate. We had seen our mothers, many like mine, who were the subject of the Feminist Mystique, being educated and underutilized and often depressed or angry. The same women who had run the factories during the war were expected to return to roles of docility and secondary citizenship. We did not like what we saw at home often and not what we saw on TV—Donna Reed and her ilk. Even Dale Rogers was a secondary citizen behind Roy Rogers’ horse Trigger. We loved our Jo and Nancy Drew and as we got older Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath and Erica Jong took their places and we followed their lead. When Ms Magazine first published in 1971 the key article for many of us was about the Click point—that moment when it hit you that you were being patronized or discriminated against or sexually harassed or even abused. We all knew what ours was. It was a moment like the “Me Too” movement now.

We are the grandmothers now but we are also the leading edge of the next feminist revolution and this one may be political. I revel in the options my granddaughters have in front of them. While the books I had which gave me my role models were limited and the Childhood of Famous Americans series had far fewer girls than boys, today when I go to a book store there are shelves of biographies of noteworthy women of every age, ethnicity and gender orientation either as individual stories or anthologized. And sure enough my granddaughters down to the tiniest have books telling those stories of resisters… sometimes with matching T-shirts.  Louisa Alcott was a resister, we grew to be like her Jo and now we can tell our own stories to what many of us hope will the next generation of resisters. Sisters.

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A Question of Potential

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.

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And We Wonder Why Black Males struggle….

By Marcia Y. Cantarella, PhD, Author of I CAN Finish College: The Overcome Any Obstacle and Get Your Degree Guide

Not surprisingly I found myself in the midst of a discussion yesterday on the tragic shooting of Trayvon Martin—an unarmed young black male. As far as anyone seems to know now his crime was being black and wearing a hoodie while walking.

What struck me though, was that the conversation was among a very special group. One had a friend who was close to Trayvon and felt a personal tie to the tragedy. The others included a student recently admitted to Yale’s doctoral program in biochemistry, a candidate to FMU’s doctoral program in history, a Leon Cooperman Scholar in Economics, a McNair Scholar and others of similar accomplishments. These were the Black men of the Hunter College (CUNY) Black Male Initiative.

Stunning was the thought that any one of these extraordinary young men could have been Trayvon—wearing a hoodie and walking home. Over my career in higher education I have had the honor of knowing so many like them. Some now doctors—both medical and PhD’s, some corporate executives like my own son,  some now fathers and husbands, but all truly talented. However, when I was likely to have first encountered them they were in their late teens or young adulthood. They wore baggy pants or sweats and sometimes hoodies. Their brilliance and capacity was not visible from any external measure.

What is the emblem that these young men—far from thuggish—have to wear to signify to all that they are benign, non-threatening, maybe really smart and thoughtful and kind.

Claude Steele the scholar who identified the phenomenon of stereotype threat  and  author of Whistling Vivaldi writes of the story that lead to the title of the book—a young Black scholar’s need to signal to the world that he is not a rapper, but a cultured person meaning no harm.  So he whistled Vivaldi when walking down streets where white women might shy away or older persons might move a bit faster in the other direction.

What must it take from these young men’s very souls to know that they are so despised for no reason that they must find ways, like whistling Vivaldi,  to tell the world that they are just like everyone else, trying to work hard  and get ahead. Do we wonder given just the micro-insults and micro-inequities why these men might not be depressed? Might they not be also just a little bit angry—but socialized to not act on that anger, so it becomes directed inward. Is the hoodie itself a reflection of a desire to hide—to become invisible? It is hard to succeed when you think the world thinks so little of you that you deserve to die just for walking home in your hoodie  with a soda and a box of candy.

My heart ached yesterday for my smart and brave young men. May they stay safe.

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The “Is College Worth it” Debate—Not a Debate Worth Having.

The “Is College Worth it” Debate—Not a Debate Worth Having.
By Marcia Y. Cantarella, PhD, Author, I CAN Finish College: The Overcome Any Obstacle and Get Your Degree Guide
For those who know me well, I am considered a pretty even keeled person, not given to histrionics. However this week I began to boil. While the twittersphere and other media are engaged in a debate about the value of college and the congress considers more cuts to federal financial aid and states consider increases to public college tuitions, we learn that the net worth of minorities (Black and Hispanics) is between 16 and 18 percent less than that of whites. But wait, we also know that these populations are also the ones suffering the highest unemployment rates. And we also know that these are the populations who graduate from high school the least prepared for college and the least likely to go or persist if they do. And we know that those with a college degree earn at least 54% more than those without. These facts are all related. What they relate to is that Blacks and Hispanics, being educationally disadvantaged at every level, are ultimately denied the possibility of attaining the college degree that might put them in a position to narrow that net worth gap. And people (with college degrees….) debate whether college is worth it? Excuse me!

Generally I engage in calculated risk only. I know that what I am about to say may irritate colleagues in the academic world but there are others in that world who know exactly where I am coming from and are –perhaps quietly — in agreement. I am also not known as a conspiracy theorist—I generally think people are too disorganized to hold a major conspiracy together. Having had a wonderful 28 years with my Italian/French husband and having a very interracial family (that also includes Catholics, Jews, Unitarians and gays), I could hardly be called racist. But I could suggest that those in power ( predominantly white, mainly male, affluent and college educated) are behaving in ways with regard resource allocation in education impacting blacks and browns that smacks of both racism and conspiracy.

The reason I wrote my book, I CAN Finish College: The Overcome Any Obstacle and Get Your Degree Guide, was because as a dean or senior administrator in a variety of college settings I dealt with students who came to college unprepared, most often not just intellectually, but culturally. In places like Princeton there are very secure safety nets and resources to sustain students and subsequent high graduation rates. In places like Hunter, where the resources from public funding are slim, it is easier for students to drift, unaware that they could and should take advantage of resources there to help them. Students who do not come from privilege view college as an elite experience and one of which they often feel unworthy. They do not approach it or the resources offered like career offices, tutoring and writing centers, faculty office hours or advisers as the entitlements that their more savvy and affluent fellow students do. So they slip and slide their way out the door and until recently no one seemed to notice that only 25% of black males entering college were graduating or that nearly 50% of all students entering college were not finishing in 6 years.

My grandchildren will be the 5th generation in our family to go to college. I am the second generation to be both PhD’d and a college dean. Clearly I was a privileged member of an academic elite—especially as a black woman. What I grew up with was a culture of reading first and foremost. Kids who grow up in the inner city may not have access to books at home or people to read to them as I did. But it is the skill that predicts by third grade whether one will graduate from high school. My grandkids in an affluent Boston suburb have been in a program from birth practically that would have them “reading” 1000 books by first grade. The oldest at first grade had checked off over 600 by first grade and that did not include the books her parents and I bought for her and her sister. It is no surprise then that they are already well above grade level in reading. So if we want college graduates we need to encourage reading all the time everywhere. But urban libraries are closing in and out of schools. So much for preparation for those kids. And who tells their parents what the stakes are so they can either advocate for resources or make other plans?

We also need, on campuses, to get over ourselves in casting a disdainful eye on vocationality. The majority of leaders come from liberal arts backgrounds and narrow focus on career skills later. I support that strategy—IF faculty would be willing to help students understand why Anthropology can provide skills that are going to be workplace useful. That is the question parents and students are raising about the value of a college education cast in traditional terms. But the reality is, and has long been, that skills like critical thinking, communication, research, problem solving are available across the liberal arts spectrum. Where else did folks like Bowden College History major Kenneth Chenault learn what he needed to know to become CEO of American Express. There have been CEOs who were Religion majors and Psychology majors. But most faculty only stay in touch with those students who become the “mini-me” and follow the professor’s path to the doctorate and professoriate. They are often hard pressed to relate to a student the other things that the students who graduated in their major are doing with their lives. The career office gets to dig up that information –if they have the resources. But the student is more likely to go to someone in the department before declaring a major and ask “what can I do with this major”. We don’t arm faculty with responses to that question or they feel it is over vocationalizing the academy. Shall we get over ourselves and confront the reality that a college education is not a luxury but an economic necessity and is perceived as such by those who are footing the bill and paying our salaries? It is especially the hard pressed first generation, low-income and student of color for whom this question is most pressing. Are we going to serve their needs or not?

Guidance counselors and parents direct students in linear ways that may not serve them well, forcing a history buff to be a chem major and try for medical school which has nothing to do with his interest or aptitude. ( And anyway, most med school students majored in history or philosophy or psychology.) Or worse, students of color are directed to “majors” that will only limit their futures because they are too narrow—like data entry, or medical technician. Not that the jobs are not worthy—all work has value, but people need to be prepared for shifts in the economy and the demise of some careers as new ones emerge. So a purely vocational education still needs to be delivered or supplemented in a way that provides that intellectual agility. The liberal arts student has that intellectual flexibility. But no one points that out to the student in the inner city high school who is trying to figure out college.

Some programs like Harlem rbi and The Beginning with Children Foundation among others are beginning programs for college bound high school seniors or even before, to help prepare them for what college is really about. These students do not know what a syllabus is, who a bursar is or why they have to open campus emails and why walking away without guidance is financial disaster. None of it (again why I wrote my book.) Middle class kids with college educated parents are being hand held –perhaps excessively and for administrators annoyingly—through every step of the college process. They yelp at the tiniest slight. No concern exists for them about entitlement, but for the student who is not at all sure about how they fit in the world given a history of disadvantage and slight, they do not feel entitled to even ask questions. And we wonder why they do not succeed.

Not knowing why they are in college, not knowing how to navigate it to best advantage, not feeling empowered to have a voice in college and ask questions or seek help, Black and Brown students drop out and remain economically disadvantaged. We need to create a culture that makes college preparation systemic beginning with reading to toddlers and moving up the line to making inquiry acceptable and valued behavior. Every conversation I have with those preparing students for college acknowledges that the process has to start sooner. My oldest granddaughter at birth was given onesies from Smith, Bryn Mawr and Princeton. We set those expectations high and early. She should not be an exception. If college is now an economic necessity then this should be the norm—for all children regardless of ethnicity, national origin or income. There was a time in the Black community when this was more true and we lost that as the urban education landscape made people less and less ready to engage in college level work and the economics of college became more daunting. This is nuts for our country. As my father Whitney Young often pointed out, what happens to Black folks in our economy is like the canary in the coal mine. Our losses become the nations.

The question is not is college worth it but how can the purportedly smart people who influence policy shift to a mode of asking how can we better explain why it is worth it and how to make it viable for more who need it so desperately. Unless of course there is a racist conspiracy going on.


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Learning is for the young?

By Marcia Y. Cantarella, PhD, Author of I CAN Finish College: The Overcome Any Obstacle And Get Your Degree Guide

The expression adult learners leaves me scratching my head. At what age were we supposed to stop being learners? Clearly, changes in who we are should drive changes in educational needs. Who I was at 40 was clearly different from who I was at 23 when I began a corporate career. Ray Kroc, founder, late in life, of McDonald’s used to say if you weren’t green and growing you were dead. At 40 I went back to school to earn a doctorate and change my career. But I was always learning with every new job in the corporate world that I held, and workshop or seminar I attended, or mentor I listened to.

My favorite example of this view is the story of the late civil rights and feminist activist Pauli Murray. Murray was born in the South in the early 1900s, and as a Black woman with a college degree at that time, her only career choice was to teach. She became quite aware, after many years, that her students were greatly affected by what happened in their family lives. She left teaching and earned a master’s degree in social work with the aim of improving families’ lives. In the process she came to feel that the social and legal systems stood in the way of her peoples’ ability to progress, and so she left social work and earned a law degree. She became well known as a civil rights and women’s rights attorney. When she was in her 60s she began to believe that the key to a good life lay in the spiritual realm. She returned to school and earned a divinity degree, and at age 72 became a minister and the “Priest¬-in-Charge” of the Holy Nativity Church in Baltimore. Pauli Murray had four distinct and productive careers over a long life span that continued into her 80s. She was the ultimate adult learner.

Aging and experience seem to offer greater awareness of what skills we need, what skills we have, what we want to do and how to go about getting it. However our society does not value that reality. The adult who has a family, some time in the workplace under his belt and a need or desire to retool is categorized as some kind of odd duck.

At one point in my career I was a Vice-President at Metropolitan College of New York which was founded in the 1960s with the goal of serving women on welfare who needed to enhance their economic options by getting a college degree. These women had been in the workforce but only marginally and lacking that crucial college credential were prevented from further advancement. The creative curriculum that founder Audrey Cohen created was one designed to use the work these students did to manifest and enhance the skills that they had. What was clear though, was that these women learned every day and they had become experts at survival. Like the scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz they lacked the credential and the formal educational framework to contextualize what they knew and needed to know to advance.

As our world changes over time the nature of work changes too. We went from being an agrarian society where “book learning” was not seen as highly relevant to making a living at least among the masses. As an industrial society we needed workers who could read and follow directions and increasing levels of sophistication in management and so increasing levels of education became more pervasive, more available and more needed as time has gone on, but for unionized millions the skills needed on an assembly line meant that a high school education was sufficient. As we have become a more technological, information driven economy with factory jobs on the decline, the college degree has replaced the high school degree as the base line. So change in the nature of work drives changes in educational needs.

The adult learner, like kids who attend urban schools and are by definition categorized as deficit, are also marginalized. The traditional academic community has assumed that you are available for classes and meetings during the 9-5 periods when most faculty want to teach and most administrators want to work. That does not allow for the possibility that the student may have other obligations including jobs, kids , spouses or elderly parents all demanding their attention.

Yet it is my experience that these students who may not come to college with all the best preparation for college—in part, because of the failures in the k-12 system, also come with high degrees of motivation. A seventeen year old may not know why they are going to college other than they were expected to do so, may see it as a chance to party hearty, or a space to not make decisions. When thrust into the work world with the reality of paying one’s own way or for the needs of others, clarity hits. The adult learner may have more reason to manage time better, a child to be a role model for, a rent to pay and new aspirations won from seeing all that can be available with a degree. Adult learners in the classes and on the campuses I have seen do. They have a persistence and drive that is awe inspiring.

Yet they are given the short end of the educational stick. It is no surprise that “colleges” that specialize in vocations have found this niche and built themselves around online and flexible schedules, little in “wasted” requirements and access to administrative services beyond 9 to 5. They also often, however, do this at a premium in price and no guarantee of the real learning that will enhance the student for the long term or a job at the end. It is interesting that these schools like Phoenix and other for-profit schools are also beacons for others characterized as non-traditional—a category that can include a higher proportion of minority, first generation, low-income students and veterans. That is to say the same students failed by the k-12 system.

Given the reality that we do not have enough people trained to do the jobs that are now and will become available, and that there are schools struggling to maintain viability. There is an opportunity here to do well by these students in some ways that are traditional and some that are not.

First let’s not abandon the general education (aka—the liberal arts). Dean Matthew Santirocco at New York University, in speaking of the liberal arts, once put it this way: “Its goal is less to convey a body of knowledge than to present the chief approaches to understanding our world… [I]t should develop in you the breadth, agility and flexibility that will enable you to embark on a lifetime of learning and to adapt to a rapidly changing world. In fact, seen in this way, the liberal arts are an eminently practical education.” Indeed interestingly, he has been tapped to bring this perspective to the NYU Shanghai campus. There are general skills that are needed in the workplace including communications and critical thinking and then there are the particular skills that apply only to certain jobs like graphic design. A good education will provide both according to the goals and needs of the student.

Second, revise the way colleges work so that, like the for-profits, there are more options for seeing advisers or taking classes during non-traditional hours. Work shifts for administrative functions like the registrar, career services or financial aid could be 7 AM to 2 and 2 to 7, making for flex schedules that also allow adults to get the services and information they need at times that allow them to deal with work and family. Class hours in many places are already more flexible and can even be online and interactive via skype.
Third, acknowledge that adults will come with varying skill levels sometimes the result of inadequate early preparation and sometimes just the function of having been away from algebra for an eon or two. Allow for some low-cost catch-up classes (avoid the stigma of remediation) so that returnees can get what they need without using up valuable Pell credits and funds.

Having family in Italy, the US contingent of us just decided to take Italian—parents, grandma and kids. We will be learning intergenerationally. As it should be. Learning does not belong only to the young. It is for all who need it when they need it. We should always be adult learners.

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Planning for life after college is not what you think it is….

By Marcia Y.
Cantarella. PhD

Author, I
CAN Finish College: The Overcome Any Obstacle and Get Your Degree Guide

Far too many people, some who should know better if they looked at their own career paths, are making the link between college and career way more linear than it needs to be or should be. The evidence is in
that those tracked to purely vocational tracks as undergraduates do not fare as well economically in the long term as those who take the seemingly more risky“liberal arts” path.

But here are some realities. First the jobs of today and the jobs of tomorrow may look nothing alike. Social media marketing anyone? If you put a diverse group of college grads who have been out for 15 or more years together I would put money on the fact that there will be a wide range of majors and careers (having nothing to do with those majors) and the same set of skills across the board. The skills will have to do with communications, interactions with others, critical reasoning and problem solving, some varying degree of quantitative skills and the ability to research and solve problems. Most of our leaders in politics and business have degrees in things ranging from History to Religion and Psychology. Most medical students have degrees in Philosophy and History or English.  Any major will deliver on the key skills. The trick is to be at the top of the pack in grades. Not grades you have brow-beaten a professor to get but grades earned through hard work and intelligence and because you like what you arestudying. Forcing yourself to be a math major because there are jobs in it does not make sense if you hate it. It will bite you sooner or later.

Finding a passion and pursuing it to excellence is part one of the strategy to the first job out of school. The other part has to do with how you spend the rest of the time. So while not neglecting the academics, there should also be some internships, some leadership activities, some community service in the life of a student. That is to say there has to be a chance to apply the skills learned in class, to try out fields and
demonstrate employability, to show that one plays well with others and can lead or follow as required, and can juggle many things well. This also constitutes a resume. Professors who value intellect—the bright kid who asks questions and comes to office hours, the employer who hires a student as an intern, the dean who oversees the community service project will all be references. It is not about being linear—life is not linear, but about being good and perceived as good by others.

One thing that students also need to understand isthat they start jobs at the beginning—i.e. the bottom of the heap and can expect to move around while finding whatthey love to do or the place they love to do it. Those of us who call ourselves grown-ups have done the same things in  good times and bad. The game plan needs to be realistic for now. Thatmight suggest not taking on huge college debt but considering starting at a two year or a public institution and transferring if that makes sense. It means planning on living at home for a year or two or having a bunch of roommates.

What we also know however, is that you earn more with a college degree  and are less likely to be let go. Look at the stats for who is unemployed now and who is not. Approach college with a bit of calm and self-possession—finding ways to manifest individual excellence and the chances of a good outcome are not guaranteed but a hell of a lot better and happier.

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Pathways to Employablity and College Elites

Pathways to Employability and College Elites

By Marcia Young Cantarella, PhD

Author, I CAN Finish College: The Overcome Any
Obstacle and Get Your Degree Guide


As I read the report from the Harvard University School
of Education entitled Pathways to Prosperity: Meeting the Challenge of
Preparing Young Americans for the 21st Century, I felt a little chill coming
from a memory of high school.

Daughter of the late Civil Rights Leader Whitney M. Young,
Jr., I came from a long line of educators, am a voracious reader and,
certainly, in a family where most had Masters degrees, I was expected to go to

I attended New Rochelle High School from 1961 to 1964.
The school, like Gaul, was divided into three parts –There was the college
prep track, populated mainly by affluent white students, predominantly Jewish,
where I was a very distinct minority. There was the vocational track, which was
populated mainly by Italian students of blue collar background, and there was
the “general” track, which was populated mainly by Black students who came from
low-income families.

It was only by the force of her will that my mother got
me into the AP and Honors classes I needed in order to compete and we ignored
completely the guidance counselor guiding me to second tier colleges rather
than places like Smith and Bryn Mawr which I ultimately attended. My classmates
from my AP classes went to Harvard, Cornell, Yale, Princeton and Brown and are
now educators, executives, and social workers. I have no idea where the others
are except that a fair number died in Vietnam because they lacked college

Now, having a doctorate that analyzes business history
and culture, I have found that most business and other leaders have liberal
arts degrees.  There are the exceptions
— ranging from Harvard drop- out Bill Gates to those who have worked their way
up from mail room to board room as former Avon CEO David Mitchell did. But it
has been my experience as a corporate executive myself, and then as a college
administrator and dean, that the students who have the most long term success
in the workplace learn skills such as the ability to think critically,
communicate well, the moral and cultural springs of human behavior, and how to
back up insights with research and quantitative reasoning, typically found in a
liberal arts curriculum.

Here is my concern: Taken the wrong way or in the wrong
hands, the Harvard study, well-intentioned as it may be, might be used to
recreate a tracking system like that of my high school experience — with
ceilings being placed on the capacities to develop for wide sections of the
population, often urban, minority, immigrant, low-income — who are already the
victims of urban schools and life experiences that limit their horizons and
abilities to move beyond where they are now. Indeed another report in the New
York Times cites that the higher tier schools are still elitist even when they
make efforts to break that cycle.
However if SAT scores and finances are determinants either by admissions
officers or by certain segments of the population setting their sight low
because they can’t envision themselves making the cut, then the cycle will

I remember my grandfather, head of a vocational
residential high school in Kentucky back in the 1930s, 40s and 50s and who was
explicitly expected to teach his black students how to run farms and kitchens.
Willfulness runs in our family, and he defiantly but discreetly taught the
students of Lincoln Institute literature, history, social studies, and
math.  They moved on to college and to
fulfilling careers beyond the vocational paths they had been relegated to by
the racist policies of the time.

The study suggests that most jobs of the 21st Century
will not require a bachelors degree and that an associates or vocational
occupational credential will suffice. And therefore, we should focus on that
level of learning alone. While that may be fine for the start of a career, I am
concerned that it does not address career growth over the life time of an
individual. If most jobs means menial jobs then what of the high tech,
managerial or even yet un-thought of jobs that will emerge?

It is a slippery slope indeed. Organizations ranging
from the Harlem Children’s Zone, the Eagle Academy, and LEDA are proving that
students who may never have aspired to, let alone been able to succeed in a
broader higher educational context can do so, we should be very cautious that
we are not sending a message that liberal arts degrees or studies whether in a
four or a two year context should be denied anyone.

The reality is that we are long past the time when one
took a job after college and stayed in the same firm or job until given the
gold watch at retirement 40 years later. Not only will workers work longer but
they will work in a wider array of jobs and contexts in an ever changing
landscape of careers being created daily. Who would have thought of making a
career out of twittering in cyberspace? Workers need to be prepared to be
constant learners with the capacities to communicate well, solve problems,
engage in research to find solutions, develop metrics and engage well with
others, whether as leaders or followers. Just knowing how to input medical data
is not going to sustain a career for 50 years or produce growth in either the
individual or the economy.

Schools which have a predominantly vocational focus can
also deliver the kind of broad education that will assure a better trajectory
over the long haul for those students who choose to gravitate that way based on
their own needs and interests. Schools like Raritan Valley Community College
have rigorous liberal arts courses, vocational degrees and an experiential
approach to learning manifested in its robust service learning program. The
point is to not narrow focus on vocationality at the expense of broader
learning objectives sustaining personal and economic growth across our society.

Recommendations in the report that there needs to be
more private sector engagement in higher education and more advisement,
apprenticeship or experiential opportunities should apply to ALL students. Few
graduating from even our most elite schools have a good sense of the world of
work and how they fit into it.

I believe, as noted in the first chapter of my book I
CAN Finish College, that students need to find what is the right educational
fit for them at a particular moment as they enter the arena of higher education
and should expect to move in and out—even as I did, getting my masters and
doctorate 20 years after I had graduated from college. Retraining and being
teachable will be expected for all. But tracking a particular segment of the
population to vocational schools is likely to result in returning to what we
were leaving behind—a permanent underclass that is classist and racist on its

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