Student Voice

Who’s ‘College Material’? It’s Not Your Decision to Make

During my senior year in high school, my guidance counselor told me not to apply to my dream school because he didn’t think I’d get in. He cautioned me against wasting one of the five college application vouchers I would receive that year by applying to a school that was, as he put it, out of my reach. In his defense, he knew a bit about my life at home and was probably thinking of how difficult it would be for my family to pay for school, or how tough it might be for me to assimilate at a predominantly white college. In his eyes, in 2004, I just wasn’t “Boston College material.” The problem? That wasn’t his decision to make. Just the other night, Fran Gallo, the superintendent of my hometown of Central Falls, Rhode Island, bemoaned on television the sad fact that she still overhears guidance counselors in her district steer students away from applying to four-year colleges. She is clear about her belief that community college is the perfect fit for some. Her problem is when those charged with advising students continue to peddle the idea that it is the only option for all. I get very offended when adults who hold college degrees (and often advanced degrees, too) tell a group of high schoolers that “college isn’t for everyone.” To me, the message they send is, “I was able to do it and I will have this expectation for my own children, but don’t worry if you don’t make it.” This enables a culture of lowered expectations and takes away a young person’s right to decide whether he or she is “college material.” This is especially offensive in communities, like mine, where college attendance is low. Our most recent data tells us that only 31 percent of our town’s 12th-graders took the SAT and only 34 percent filled out the FAFSA. The most heartbreaking part of these statistics is that when students were asked in 11th grade whether they plan to attend college, 89 percent said yes. We need to face the gap between students’ hopes and the realities they face. Considering that we know that 71 percent of Rhode Island jobs will require post-secondary education, these numbers are of huge concern. The truth is, I want every child in Central Falls to experience college because I know personally what it can do for a family and for an entire community. I was one of the lucky ones. I was part of a small group of students who had the chance to supplement their education, on Saturdays and during summers, with a local chapter of Upward Bound, a college preparatory program. The organization encouraged me to apply for college and despite daily challenges with finances, I graduated from Boston College in 2008. I can’t help but wonder how many others have been unknowingly deterred from taking big risks. Those risks make all the difference in communities like mine. It was precisely those four long and trying years on a college campus that transformed me into an advocate for high expectations for all kids. It became the trigger for me to come back to my community and throw myself into education outreach and advocacy. Now, I’m an elected member of the Central Falls City Council, and I want to make sure that all kids in my community are prepared and ready for whatever their futures may hold.
Stephanie Gonzalez is City Council President Pro Tempore of Central Falls and serves on the Central Falls School Board of Trustees.
Stephanie Gonzalez was born and raised in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She graduated from Central Falls High School in 2004 and became the first member of her family to attend college, graduating in 2008 with a B.A. in English from Boston College. Since returning to Central Falls, Stephanie has dedicated much of her time advocating for quality education for families, and ...

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