One of the things that I am most appreciative of at this point in my life is the fact that I grew up in a public education setting. Granted, all of that public education came from arguably some of the best schools in the Milwaukee Public School system. I went to a Montessori school from kindergarten to second grade, and after that I went to a “gifted and talented” school up to eighth grade. While I was in high school I went to an International Baccalaureate school and took all IB classes my junior and senior year. The benefits of all of these schools are that I had an educational experience based much more around experiential learning and as such I learned about things from different perspectives through class trips to foreign countries as well as through an international curriculum, expanding my knowledge and interests in ways that (arguably) only a handful of students in the MPS system have experienced. Each of these steps as I got older were leading to one goal: college.
For me, going to college was never a question. In fact, it was never even a question of where I would go. My dad being a history professor at Marquette University made that decision for both me and my sister; the free tuition was really hard to pass up. Most of my closest friends that I had known since my elementary and middle school days were in the same high school as me, and most of us were in nothing but IB classes. Everyone I interacted with on a day-to-day basis was also planning on going to college. I thought it was just something that was a given after high school. Marquette was the only school I applied to, and I got accepted. Everyone went their separate ways to begin their own journeys as adults and find their own.
Marquette is not a public school. It’s a private Jesuit institution. My family had never been particularly religious in a traditional sense; Unitarian Universalism is definitely a different kind of spirituality. Of course, being a teenager I wanted to rebel in my own way and fight “the system” (whatever that means), so while I was fine with going to Marquette, I knew it would be a different environment. It became even more obvious within the first couple weeks of freshman year. I was becoming good friends with everyone in my dorm wing and we would do everything together, mainly using our unlimited meal plans to their fullest extent. Somehow the topic of politics was brought up and someone said something negative about Barack Obama, and all I responded with was “I like Obama.” The look of shock on my new friends’ faces was surprising to me, like they had never met a liberal before. To be clear: I have no problem with people who disagree with me politically. My point is that college was clearly a new environment for me and that was the point at which I knew it would be an adjustment.
These political disagreements never really affected the friendships I was making, but it made it painfully clear that it would be harder to find people I could really connect with on a deeper, more personal level. Freshman year was rough, to say the least. There were many points where I was self-pitying, telling myself that I never had a choice to be at Marquette and that other schools would have been better for me, especially after seeing how successful my best friends were at their schools of choice. Thankfully, by the end of freshman year I found my close friends, and things only got better from there. I changed my major, formed stronger relationships with those around me, became more open-minded in general, studied abroad, and ended up enjoying the rest of my college experience.
So why bother talking about all of this? Well, I’ll refer back to the fact that it seemed like I as the first politically liberal person that some of my new friends had met. This is a little bit of a bold assumption, but the vast majority of Marquette students are upper-middle class white kids from the suburbs of Chicago. They had the opposite experience of me growing up in an urban public school system where the majority of my classmates were racial minorities, for starters. White people were without doubt the minority in my high school, which was located in a mostly black neighborhood on the north side of Milwaukee. When the Black Lives Matter movement started and our minority groups and clubs at Marquette started their protests, some of the worst things I have ever seen on the internet appeared on our Yik Yak. These terrible things were said by the people I had been going to classes with for over three years at that point. It dawned on me even more that the people around me just didn’t get it. Again, a bold statement, but the campus culture was to dismiss the homeless black people begging for money at the bus stop, to complain about all of these people who were “bothering them,” despite the fact that Marquette is located in a historically poor black neighborhood (incidentally, it should not be surprising given the Jesuit practice of service). Having grown up being surrounded by diversity and people from vastly different backgrounds than me in an educational setting made me much more conscientious of the problems that not only our city faces, but the country as a whole.
I look back on my views about college and I cannot believe I ever thought it was a given. The culture that all of my classmates at Marquette and I grew up in told us that we would go to college. But it’s not a universal. Even though I went to an MPS high school, I only interacted with the other college-bound IB students. There were well over three hundred in my graduating class and I only knew a fraction of them. I would assume most of them did not go to college. The experiences I had throughout my lifetime showed me the nature of diversity in education, both socially and content-wise. I am thankful for all of the internal struggles I had at Marquette, mainly because it fuels my passion to help people reach their goals within education. I really feel like I lucked out.
Now I have served with College Possible for over ten months and have been accepted to stay on for another term of service. Every day I interact with first-generation minority students from MPS schools who are beating the odds and making that transition to a better future. They are making that transition with a culture shock thousands of times stronger than what I experienced. Without the contrast of my education path and the exposure to so many different people from so many different backgrounds, I would not be able to do this service as effectively as (I hope) I have. I am thankful every day for that, and it’s something that I believe more Americans should be able to experience for themselves, especially if they are in a position to do something about it as I am. Yes, public schools are frustrating beyond belief. But there is value to seeing what can come out of them and what other benefits can arise through something as simple as diversity, especially in a city such as Milwaukee.