My formal education ended with my doctoral candidacy. There were many reasons for my not completing my dissertation, but the only surprise, in my own mind, is that I made it that far in graduate school.
My family was poor, working class and rather itinerant. I went to several elementary schools, and a few high schools. I lived in 9 or 10 houses before I graduated from high school.
By the time I found my way to college, I had lived in more houses than I had years, and had a 6 year old child (who had lived in more homes than she had years). But I had found a good income during the 70’s and was able to afford to go to school, so long as I worked part-time and summers.
I took a standardized entrance exam for university and didn’t know how to read it. I thought the numbers confirmed my suspicions that I was an idiot, but I read them wrong and actually had advanced placement for some subjects. But there I was, 30, just a hairsbreadth shy of being a high school failure (my GPA was barely adequate to graduate, maybe because I was holding two jobs?) in with young and seemingly confident undergrads. I not only didn’t know how to read entrance exam results, but I had no idea about things like “majors” and “minors” and requirements. As far as my knowledge of university was concerned, I was functionally illiterate.
I spent those years always convinced that the last A grade was a mistake. I had fooled someone into it. I drove myself to get the best marks for everything, and never trusted that I earned them. I never thought I could get from the University of Alaska into a “real” university like the University of Washington. Then one of my professors suggested graduate school. I was accepted and given full support (with teaching duties). Another mistake, I thought, how easy it is to pull something on UW.
There were few working class graduate students, and I gravitated to them. I never felt very comfortable with the majority of students, and less so with faculty. They spoke a secret language learned from intimate familiarity with the Classics, with math and philosophy, with college intramural sports, and with Greek life. They went home to scholarly lives, and I went home to teenage children and domestic responsibilities. We were of different worlds — the world of the campus was theirs, and I was an interloper.
Today some universities and graduate programs are recognizing that working class and poor students have problems that cause them to drop out and not reach their potential. In countries where everyone is expected to go to university, and university is paid for by the government instead of with student loans and part-time jobs, I suspect the culture of education is much more inclusive. Outreach to students who have somehow arrived ill-prepared for university is something, but it is too little too late. The culture of education has to begin at the beginning.
Education shouldn’t feel like it belongs to another class or group of people. Today, at least in the US, this is more of a problem than ever. Some poor children grow up in families rich in the respect for and expectation of learning. Some of us come from families where education is what keeps you busy and out of trouble till you can get a job. Few of us have a sense of entitlement and expectation. And when we actually get towards the top, we can feel like imposters.