College Material: Stories from the front lines of the American Dream
"We're helping change the world here ... I've seen it happen."
"There weren't many people around me who had struggling stories. Everyone had just kind of found their place really easily and that wasn't me."
"When I really think of giving up, I think of my family."
Mark Jackson settles into his chair, and takes a sip of coffee. He’s been in interviews all morning, meeting with high school students and parents interested in enrolling at Wayne State University through the APEX program, which Jackson oversees.
Jackson tells me he’s worked in college academic advising for 35 “some-odd” years, at six different institutions.
And he loves the work.
“You know, we’re helping change the world here,” he says. “People think I say that tongue-in-cheek. No, I’ve seen it happen.”
Jackson begins to tell me a story of a student he met in Chicago years ago.
“Marginal kid, with marginal skills,” he says. “Came from a high school that had all kinds of challenges. But when I met him, he said, ‘I want to do this.’”
Jackson’s voice begins to tremble.
He pauses the story. Looks down at his hands. Takes a moment to collect himself.
“Happens every time,” he says, before continuing. “So, Patrick … he was an empty vessel. He was like, ‘How do I do this, I’m scared to death.’ Now, you don’t get that out of a freshman, but Patrick, somehow we connected, and Patrick said, ‘What do I do?’ And, of course, Mr. Advice here, I’m like, ‘Okay, let’s see what you got.
Jackson told him to go to the tutor’s office. Sign up for tutoring for every one of your classes. And go to them, not just when you’re struggling, but every week. Then, go to an adviser to help you strategically choose your courses so you can maintain a part time job and still get your degree.
“He did it,” Jackson says. “Patrick became one of the most prolific student leaders that the university has – this is the University of Illinois – Chicago. Patrick sent me a copy of his diploma.”
Jackson points over my shoulder to a bookcase along the wall.
“It’s right over there,” he says.
Mark Jackson has carried this memento with him now for two decades.
On the front lines of the American Dream
The American Dream is based on the idea that a person who starts out at the bottom can make it to the top. It’s a dream that’s much harder to accomplish in real life than most people imagine.
But for the lucky few who embark on that climb, there is a well-established gateway they have to pass: College. Make it to the other side, and odds are, you’ll make it to the middle class.
Getting to college in the first place is a huge hurdle for many kids. But even for those who manage to get there, earning the degree is a struggle. Less than 40 percent of people who enroll in college make it to graduation within six years, according to federal statistics. Kids who come from low-income families, or from families where their parents never went to college, face much worse odds.
But this is not a story about statistics. It’s a story about what it’s like, living on the front lines of the American Dream, and battling to earn a spot in the middle class.
It’s about what it takes to be college material.
We have four stories, of four students, all in different stages along the college path.
The first story begins the year before college, inside a high school – West Ottawa High School in Holland.
It's second period, inside the computer lab.
Ann Kirkendall is leading a composition class made up mostly of seniors. She’s assigned them to research a career field that interests them, contact people who work in that field, and write a paper about what they learn.
Ireana Bernal raises her hand to ask a question. Bernal sits at a computer by the window, wearing nurse scrubs. She goes off campus in the afternoon for specialized classes in nursing. She’ll leave high school with a number of certifications. She works part-time. She’s looking for a second job to earn a little extra money for Christmas. And she volunteers
“It’s a lot of work,” she sighs. “Plus doing good in my classes.”
“Do you feel like you do too much?” I ask.
"That's the one thing I hate is not knowing what I want to do," she says. "I want to know what I want to do now, and I want to work towards it. I'm definitely organized. Like, I don't like not knowing what the future holds."
Bernal is in the fall of her senior year, in the thick of applying for college. She knows she wants to go into the nursing field. She’s pretty sure she wants to be a nurse practitioner. But right now, she’s not totally sure where she’ll be able to afford to go to school.
“That’s the one thing I hate is not knowing what I want to do,” she says. “I want to know what I want to do now, and I want to work towards it. I’m definitely organized. Like, I don’t like not knowing what the future holds.”
She sets goals for herself every day, and tries to meet them. She stays in touch with her counselors and teachers.
“She has this self-will," says her guidance counselor, Mitch Veldkamp. "Something in her. A little fire that started.”
Veldkamp has worked with Bernal since her freshman year. He’s seen her through a lot. On his desk, he keeps a painting she made for him.
“She just seeks out things,” Veldkamp says. “She really does. It’s a joy working with her because she’s excited about it. She doesn’t just sit there in the chair and think, ‘Well, what are you going to do for me?’”
This much is definitely true about Ireana Bernal: Her teachers, her counselor, adults who work with her, all have great things to say about her. She’s determined. She’s focused. And, a rare skill among teenagers, she knows when to ask for help.
But Bernal’s record on paper doesn’t offer the same glowing picture.
“I do sometimes wish that we could, you know, put a gold star on some applications and say, ‘Listen, I’ve seen lots of kids now. This person is going to go far. Believe in them. I believe in them,” says Ann Kirkendall. “I do wish we could do that.”
Instead, all that gets sent to colleges is a few pages with some numbers. Some colleges have started doing personal interviews with some students. And, of course, each student writes an essay. But still, the two biggest pieces of information colleges use to choose who gets in are the student’s GPA and their score on either the SAT or ACT.
Neither of those things show the kinds of strengths that Ireana Bernal’s teachers see in her.
To understand what her teachers see in her, we need to go back a couple years, to Bernal’s first two years of high school.
“My sophomore was awful,” Bernal says. “I never want to go back to that. I got involved with bad people, and all kinds of stuff. Typical, teen stuff, I guess. But it wasn’t for me.”
Bernal turned things around, remarkably so. But it doesn’t matter much on her transcripts that she’s improved her GPA since then. Her overall GPA still reflects the choices she made as a high school freshman and sophomore.
And yet, going through that, to Bernal, that’s the thing that makes her stronger now.
Because she also wasn’t just going through typical teen stuff. She was battling depression.
“I was always sad, and I skipped so many days of school,” she says. “I wanted to be happy. That’s what people I feel like don’t understand with depression, they’re like, ‘Why can’t you just be happy?’ I mean, I do want to be happy. I want to wake up every morning and I want to be happy. I want to get out of bed and be able to do it. But I can’t. So sometimes when I feel like I can’t get out of bed, I have to like literally force myself to get out of bed. So I push myself.”
That’s why she says she keeps herself so busy. Way more than her peers. Between the work, the volunteering, the school time, she has lots of reasons to get out of bed. And she has lots of structure to her life.
Growing up, that structure wasn’t always there. She was born when her mother was only 14. For a while, they didn’t have a stable place to live. Her father ended up in prison.
Still, she says while these experiences made some things harder for her, they also made her stronger.
“I’m happy with the way I grew up,” she says. “My mom’s taught me to be different, to be mature, to take responsibility of your own actions … because I see the kids in my school right now, and they have everything handed to them, their fancy cars, and they’re out there doing drugs and stuff. The kids who you think are not, are actually doing that. And then when they go to college, you see them failing, and they’re like ‘Why? I did okay in high school.’ It’s because they don’t have their head in the right priorities and they’re not trying as hard.”
"It is hard when you see students who are incredibly driven and ambitious, and they really want to go far, and there are going to be some avenues that just aren't open to them, because of things that aren't really any fault of their own, teacher Ann Kirkendall says. "They have more to do with where the student is coming from."
Ireana Bernal has the right priorities. She does try hard.
But her teacher, Ann Kirkendall, knows Bernal won’t have the same opportunities as other kids. Kids whose parents went to a big university. Kids whose parents have more money.
“It is hard when you see students who are incredibly driven and ambitious, and they really want to go far, and there are going to be some avenues that just aren’t open to them, because of things that aren’t really any fault of their own,” Kirkendall says. “They have more to do with where the student is coming from.”
Other kids can screw up and still succeed. Kids like Bernal have to be stronger.
Making a name for herself
I ask her to say her name into the microphone.
“My name is Alyssa Canterbury,” she says. “I was born and raised in a small town in West Virginia called Madison.”
We’re sitting in a hallway on the campus of Grand Valley State University, in Allendale. So, I ask the most obvious question:
“How did you end up at Grand Valley State University?”
“That is a long story,” she says with a smile.
Canterbury is a freshman at GVSU. She arrived on campus late this summer. She decided on her major long before she got here. She wants to learn about anthropology.
She likes anthropology because she says it will allow her to travel the world and write.
And she says she wants to make something of her name.
“Where I come from, in Madison, West Virginia, Canterbury is not a very good name.”
This was something she learned at a very young age.
“One of my very first memories was me trying to be sorted into my kindergarten class in the gymnasium on the first day of kindergarten,” she says. “And the teacher looking at her list and saying, ‘I don’t want a Canterbury kid in my class,’ in front of the whole gym.”
I called Canterbury’s grandmother, who still lives in Madison.
“It’s not a good name,” she told me. “[The Canterburys have] always been into violence, drugs, drinking, breaking and enterings, all that. She had to live that down.”
Canterbury’s grandma’s name is Sharon Martin. Her daughter, Alyssa’s mother, is a Martin. Sharon Martin never wanted her granddaughter to be a Canterbury.
“I tried to get her mom not to put it on her, but nothing would do her,” Martin says.
Madison, West Virginia is a tiny town in the hills of southwest West Virginia. The town is called the gateway to the coalfields, and it's home to the annual West Virginia Coal Festival. Canterbury’s grandfather, Sharon Martin’s husband, worked in a coal mine most his life.
“We live up a holler,” Martin tells me. “It’s mostly mountains and trees, and very much country, and I love it.”
“A good place for a kid to grow up?” I ask.
“Well, considering today’s generation and the drug abuse that’s all around us, yes. ‘Cause everybody watches out after everybody else’s family...”
“The drugs are real bad there?”
“Yeah, they’re bad everywhere.”
It was the drugs, Martin says, the eventually got to Alyssa’s parents. And that set off a chain of events that led Alyssa Canterbury out of Madison, West Virginia, first to Florida and now to Allendale, Michigan.
It’s the day before Thanksgiving. Alyssa Canterbury, in her first year of college, 500 miles from where she grew up, will be spending the holiday break in her dorm room.
She was planning to cook a turkey.
“I don’t imagine a lot of students do that,” I say.
“Probably not,” she laughs.
It’s cold out, and snowy. The sidewalk has been salted, even though almost no one is here. We’re walking to find someplace warm to talk. Many of the buildings on campus are closed, and the dorm room doesn’t allow visitors during holiday break.
I ask Canterbury about her parents. Her mom was a teenage mother. Her dad, she says, has done prison time. Both struggled with drugs. Around her sixteenth birthday, she left.
“Do you feel like your relationship with them’s okay?” I ask.
“I mean, we don’t dislike each other, but I don’t agree with some of their lifestyle choices,” she says. “So we don’t really talk very often, and I don’t really visit with them very often. But they do ask me if I’m okay every once in a while, and I try to not ask them if they’re okay, because I know they’re not.”
After she walked out on her parents, Canterbury says she stayed wherever she could. She went to her grandma’s for a while, she stayed with friends. She sometimes went to a 24-hour McDonald’s for the night.
Mostly she says she stayed over at her best friend’s house. Then her best friend’s family moved to Florida. Canterbury had nowhere else to go.
“It turns out no one in my family was capable of taking me and supporting me the way that they needed to,” she says. “They were going to put me in a foster home, but then we got a call from my best friend’s dad and they were like, ‘We’ll take her.’ And they were like, ‘Is that legal?’ and the judge was like, ‘Make it legal.’ And seven days later I moved to Florida.”
In Florida, Canterbury did well in school. She’s always done well in school. Academics have never been a problem.
"It was a fantastic experience," she says of her time at Duke University. "But there weren't many people around me who had struggling stories. Everyone had just kind of found their place really easily and that wasn't me."
And she had no doubts about where she wanted to go to college. Ever since she was little, she’d told people she would go to Duke.
Then, while she was still in high school, she had a chance to attend a summer program at Duke, She had to raise the money herself to be able to go.
“It was a fantastic experience,” she says. “But there weren’t many people around me who had struggling stories. Everyone had just kind of found their place really easily and that wasn’t me.... So after I left Duke University, it was hard for me to keep up these relationships with them because we just didn’t understand each other.
She didn’t immediately give up on her dream of going to Duke. But it made her think.
Then, she was helping a friend research colleges. That friend has family in Michigan. So she stumbled across Grand Valley. She says she fell in love with it.
She applied. She got in.
All she needed after that was money.
She didn’t have any. But, as an independent minor, she qualified for federal financial aid.
And she got a big scholarship. The name of it is the Horatio Alger scholarship.
This summer, Canterbury loaded up her Black Isuzu Rodeo with the Florida license plate and drove her way north.
She says she loved GVSU from the start. She got a job working in the office for the campus police department. She developed an obsession with the rock climbing wall at the gym.
But by November, when I met her, she was already running into hurdles.
“I’m looking for housing for the 2015-2016 school year,” she told me.
This problem came up because she signed up to live in a newly built apartment building next year that her scholarship would cover. Then, there was a construction delay for the building. By the time she found out that basically this building is not going to exist when she needs to move in, other housing options on campus had already filled up.
She’s 18. She doesn’t have a parent to cosign her lease. She didn’t have the income to qualify for a rental on her own.
“Worst case scenario,” she said, “I beg housing on campus to give me a place to live. But I think I might have a couple of options now that I’m trying to get to work out for me.
In the world of higher education, the kind of problem Alyssa Canterbury was facing is something people generally refer to as a barrier.
There are whole offices on college campuses full of people who do nothing else but try to help students like Canterbury get through these kinds of barriers.
She told me in this sense, college for her is both the cause of her problem – because it constantly requires her to put forward money she doesn’t have – and it’s also the solution to her problem – because, as college student, she has access to lots of resources.
A few weeks later, when I met up with her again, she told me she’d been approved for a new apartment, but she had no guarantee there would be space when she needs to move in this April.
"I'm terrified," she said. “But I think it's funny. It's humorous the obstacles that keep coming up. But I’m afraid."
“Are you scared, or do you think it’s pretty solid?” I asked her.
“I’m terrified,” she said. “But I think it’s funny. It’s humorous the obstacles that keep coming up. But I’m afraid.”
And the housing situation wasn’t the only thing bothering her. There was also a new problem, this time about her status as an independent minor. Even though she’s been on her own since moving to Michigan, she told me her guardians wanted to claim her as a dependent on their taxes, since she lived with them for part of the year. If they did, her financial aid could go away.
All of this came to a head as most students started cramming for finals.
“None of these problems are academic problems,” I said. “Is school good?”
“Yeah,” she said. “I don’t have any academic problems … I’ve got As.”
Not only was she doing well, she was enjoying most of her classes. That part of college, the college part of college, was great.
There was one thing about her classes that was bothering her. It was her intro to philosophy. Specifically, one guy, a Frenchman named Albert Camus.
“He thinks that life is absurd and that it has no meaning,” she says. “And that humans are in a constant struggle to find meaning in a pointless life, and that the only real question is whether or not we should all kill ourselves.”
She chuckles just thinking about Camus.
“I don’t think we’re all struggling toward pointlessness,” she says. “I think there’s something there.”
“That seems sort of relevant,” I say to her, “because you’re going through a pretty absurd situation right now to be continuing on with the belief that life is not absurd.”
“Yeah, I don’t know,” she says. “Maybe it is absurd.”
“Are you finding yourself agreeing with Camus more?”
“No,” she says. “Because I think why would I be doing all this if it was pointless? Like, I have some sort of motivation to continue going through crap to get a college education and get somewhere with my life. And I don’t think that that comes from some sort of absurd, non-essential emotion. I think it’s towards me finding better for my actual life.”
“My philosophy teacher’s going to hear this and he’s going to be like, ‘That twerp.’”
The next time I saw Canterbury, the semester was over. She’d managed to get through her classes, even philosophy.
Once again, the GVSU was nearly empty and Canterbury was one of the few students left. She stayed here for Thanksgiving. She would be here for Christmas too.
When I visited, we were trying to get a hold of her grandma, Sharon Martin.
Canterbury was holding on to some good news.
But we were trying to call from my phone line, so I could record the conversation. On the other end of the line, no one would pick up the call from a strange number.
“I can just hear her now,” Canterbury says. “‘Pa, who’s calling?’”
When we finally get through, she spends a little time chatting about her Christmas shopping.
“I got straight As!”
“Great! Fantastic! Yay!” Martin shouts down the line. “I’m super proud of you. Super, super super.”
“I love you,” Martin says.
“I love you too,” says Canterbury.
“Well, I miss you,” her grandma says back. “Boohoohoo. There you go. I cried. Did you get all that?”
“Yeah,” Canterbury laughs into the microphone. “We got it.”
Canterbury is now in her second semester at GVSU. She says she got help with her financial aid situation, and she thinks it’ll work out. The problem about finding an apartment is still uncertain, but one way or another, she’s pretty sure she’ll either find a temporary place to stay, or be able to move into an apartment off campus.
In school, she’s taking the classes she wants to take. No philosophy. No Albert Camus.
I called up Canterbury’s grandma, Sharon Martin a couple weeks ago to catch up.
I asked if she’d been in touch with Alyssa.
“We talked for about an hour and a half about a week ago. We get to talking, we don’t want to hang up.”
“I mean, it breaks my heart she’s that far away. But she’s always going to be that far away, because, you know, she’s growing up. She’s got to have her life. I’m here for her, and she knows it. And she’s got a home to come to anytime she needs it. But you gotta let ‘em fly.”
Alyse Griffis grew up in mid-Town Detroit. She grew up in a family with a lot of brothers and sisters, and not a lot of money.
And she was always interested in learning.
“I definitely loved writing short stories. I wrote short stories about Pokemon, Digimon, all that,” Griffis says. “I just, it’s not even like I loved school. I just loved learning, and learning about a lot of things.”
She got herself into everything. She did ballet, orchestra, drama, basketball. And she was a good student.
Griffis was born seventh out of eight kids. She was the first in her family, of any generation, to make it to college.
She chose Grand Valley State University, in Allendale, a place she’d never heard of before going on her college search. A place that was very, very quiet.
“My first night, I had a hard time sleeping,” she says. “It was so quiet, I couldn’t sleep. And I didn’t feel homesick, but I was just like, ‘What did I get myself into?’ Like, who am I kidding, this is not the city.”
That was her first night. Just a few days later, her new roommate, a person she’d just met, and hoped to be friends with – suddenly moved out.
“And I was just like, now I don’t have that person to bond with,” she says. “You know how people say, ‘Oh, my roommate was my best friend in college, and we’re still close now.’ It kind of made me skeptical.”
She was far away from home. This was nothing like where she’d grown up. And now, she was alone.
But on the other hand, she had a room to herself.
“I’m like, ‘Oh, that sucks, I don’t have a roommate,’ but then it’s like, ‘I have a room to myself! I can keep the heat up to whatever temp that I want to, and …’ It was great. It was great."
The room situation was great.
Other stuff, maybe not as much. She didn’t find a circle of friends right away. Other students wanted to go party, which wasn’t her thing. Or they wanted to go out and do things that cost a bunch of money – money she didn’t have.
These are the kinds of problems a lot of college students have, especially those students who are the first in their family to go to college.
But what Griffis did about it, is like a roadmap for anyone struggling through higher education.
“I actually talked to one of my high school professors about it, and I was just like, ‘I don’t feel it here, I don’t think this is going to be a good place for me,’” she says. “And she told me just to stick it out and join clubs and stuff. So my next semester, my sophomore year, I did fencing, I did rowing, I did rugby. I joined a lot of different organizations.”
And she says, things got better. She found her niche. The rugby team was a big part of that.
She even raised the money to study abroad for a year in Australia. She still gushes about it, and she wants to go back.
As far as her classes, things started fairly easy. She’s always been a good student. But she decided to major in biology, which got much harder as she went along. No longer could she just cram for her exams a few days before they happened.
"Now I'm just like, I study a week before the exam, I'm in the professor's office hours," she says. "I'm in the tutoring center, I’m in all the professor's office hours who have never had me in class who teach the subject."
“Now I’m just like, I study a week before the exam, I’m in the professor’s office hours,” she says. “I’m in the tutoring center, I’m in all the professor’s office hours who have never had me in class who teach the subject. And that is what I love about Grand Valley: Teachers who don’t even know who I am, they’re like, ‘Oh you need help.’ And they help you. They are all interested in investing in your future and helping you go far.”
It also matters that Griffis knew when to ask for help.
That is one of the biggest and most important steps on the roadmap through college. Just asking for help. Beyond that, Griffis also took the advice of getting more involved on campus. Students who are isolated have a harder time staying the course when school gets rough.
Consider, three important factors that helped Griffis:
- Making the best out of an early setback (the runaway roommate).
- Getting involved in campus life.
- Asking for help, and accepting advice.
Griffis graduated in December. Her next move was to enlist in the Marines. She says she eventually wants to go back to school to become a veterinarian … and live in Australia.
“When I really think of giving up, I think of my family.”
“When I first got here,” she says, trailing off. “I was scared.”
Jasaria Dorty grew up in Lansing. Three years ago, she moved into a dorm room at Wayne State University, as part of the school’s APEX program.
And she was terrified.
“I remember some nights, I just couldn’t go to sleep,” she says. “I’d be like, ‘I’m so scared. I think I want to go home.’”
“Scared of what?” I ask.
“Just scared of like, starting classes and … I guess having like real responsibilities,” she says. “And this isn’t high school anymore … so many people say that, ‘It’s not like high school when you go to college.’ And so that scares you too.”
Dorty was admitted to Wayne State even though her high school GPA wasn’t good enough to get in. She says she had a 2.7. Usually, you need a 2.8 to get in.
In her family, no one had gone to college. She didn’t even think about college until her junior year of high school. She started taking school more seriously. She improved her grades in her last two years of high school, but not enough to make up for the bad grades in her freshman and sophomore years.
APEX offers conditional acceptance for students like Dorty to Wayne State. Students have to accept additional help and additional supervision. And, during the summer, APEX students get free housing. To Dorty, this was someone investing in her. And that came with pressure too.
“When I’m taking people’s money and time, and that’s what APEX did, I’m like, ‘I have to prove something,’” she says. “So that was scary. It was scary that my family was banking on me. I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, if I don’t get in with this summer program, I really don’t know where I’m going to go.’”
So she worked at it. She took the help offered to her by the APEX program. She took it, even as she watched many of her fellow students get upset at the requirements of the program, the embarrassing checkups from advisers who would stop by her class just to make sure she was there, and make sure she was keeping up with her work.
She said many of the students she started with dropped out of APEX.
She stuck with it because, for her, college was the only way out of the way she’d been living her whole life.
“For me it was kind of like, I’m unhappy, you know?” she says. “When people ask me, ‘Why did you go to college?’ It’s kind of because my family. Like, when I really feel like giving up, I think of my family and how I don’t want it to be like that.”
Like a struggle every day. Like not having money for food. Like working long hours and not seeing much come of it.
“Because I feel that money really does get to a lot of people,” Dorty continues. “I feel like it just controls a lot of situations and money has definitely been a thing for my family. It’s our meals, it’s our lifestyle that we – that no one has ever really stepped up and been like, ‘I’m going to support us.’
So Dorty will be the one who steps up. She’s going to make it out.
Dorty has a little more than a year to go before graduation. Her college GPA is a lot better than her high school GPA. And when she’s done, she says she wants to get her masters.
The statistics support Dorty’s thinking. College may not be the only way out of a life of poverty. But it increases your chances by a whole lot.
If you can get through it.