By Hannah Lee
A recent feature article in The New York Times argued that the poor have a greater barrier to obtaining a college education than ever before.* The profile described three young women who were considered the most likely to succeed and leave their “dead-end lives” in Galveston, TX. The dismal news is that five years after graduation from high school, none of them has a college degree, only one is still studying full-time, and two have burdensome debts. I felt sad for them and their prospects, which brought me to ponder anew about fate and fortune and perseverance.
Two books that I’ve read recently had similar themes about how individuals coped with adversity. One was Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken, a memoir of Louis Zamperini, a World War II lieutenant, who endured much brutality and deprivation as a prisoner-of-war under Japanese rule. Upon the conclusion of the war, his former promising career as an Olympic runner was derailed, as his stressed body could no longer handle the rigorous training. However, his story did not end in bitterness and defeat.
The other book was an academic treatise written by Steve Hochstadt titled, Exodus to Shanghai: Stories of Escape From the Third Reich. Hochstadt’s research focused on the odyssey of 16,000 Jews who escaped from Nazi-run Europe and found refuge in Shanghai when all other doors had slammed shut. They had to deal with heat, alienation in a foreign culture, and poverty. The book distilled the transcripts of 13 narrators chosen from a study base of over 100 oral histories conducted with the survivors. They all had to re-invent their lives after the war.
The New York Times profile listed the obstacles to the young women’s success as: poverty, inadequate academic preparation, and family and romantic ties. (A friend, Marshall, also adds “the diminished economic prospects of working-class males and the rise of assortative mating.”) One young woman chose the local community college because of her grandfather’s struggle with cancer and she felt it would be “selfish” to go away for schooling. This posed another barrier that was new to me, the peril of “under-matching,” choosing a close or familiar school instead of the best they can attend. The article quoted a Brookings researcher, who said, “The more selective the institution is, the more likely kids are to graduate. There are higher expectations, more resources and more stigma to dropping out.”
We cannot choose our lot in life, but our responses to our situation can either foster or hinder our ability in navigating our life’s path. I could be faulted for using war stories, which are extreme social constructs, as the basis of comparison, so I’ll invoke my own history.
My family arrived in the United States in 1967, after President Lyndon Johnson liberalized the immigration laws to allow for family reunification. My paternal aunt had sponsored us, after she’d married a Chinese-American war veteran. My parents were poor and poorly educated, but they had a burning desire for their children to succeed in this new country. So, when I was tracked into the slow class because of my limited English fluency, my mother asked for a translator and demanded that I be moved to another class with greater expectations and more homework. The next year, fourth grade, was hard for me, as I suddenly had to submit reports on current events. My strategy was to ask my father to read from the Chinese newspapers and I translated it into simple English. My efforts were rewarded when I landed in the highest class in sixth grade and earned a place in a selective public high school, Hunter, which in turn prepared me for an elite university, Brown, where I met my husband in neuroscience class. I wasn’t offered tutoring or academic support of any kind. My whole life was changed because of my mother’s high expectations.
The three young women profiled in the NYTimes did not have family support, so they felt pressure to contribute to the family income. In contrast, my mother insisted that we, my two siblings and I, stay out of the factory, even while she and my father struggled to support us alone. The years my siblings and I attended college in the early 1980s were during a severe recession and the turning point when the garment industry moved overseas. I managed college with a campus job, loans, and scholarships. I also did not have romantic entanglements that kept me in the ghetto.
The Shanghai refugees spoke of their dislocation as the litmus test that challenged their strength of character, their resilience. They benefited from the tzedakah, charity, of Jews who’d arrived earlier and established themselves in China. (Being stateless refugees, they were spared when Japan sided with Germany while the established Jews and other Europeans were considered enemy aliens.)
Another fascinating lesson to me from Unbroken was how Louis Zamperini recovered from his setbacks. Zamberini had a wild youth until he discovered a solace in running. He raged against his Japanese captors for ruining his life even after the War, when his traumatized body could no longer support competitive running. Then, in a chance meeting with the evangelist preacher, Billy Graham, he experienced forgiveness and serenity. Through Graham’s teachings, Zamperini was able to let go of resentment, rage, and the need for revenge. Thus unburdened, he was able to forge a new life of hope and love, by establishing the non-profit Victory Boys Camp for wayward youth, where he and his staff teach juvenile delinquents the skills to succeed in life. He and his wife Cynthia raised two boys of their own.
I’m still trying to learn how and why people overcome their personal challenges. The history of Jewish and Asian immigrants— my two touchstones– and our achievements in American society have validated the high value we place on education. However, I’ve been searching for other bases for resilience. What are other ways for people to persevere? My lessons so far have included inner strength, family expectations, God, and the kindness of strangers.
*“Thirty years ago, there was a 31 percentage point difference between the share of prosperous and poor Americans who earned bachelor’s degrees, according to Martha J. Bailey and Susan M. Dynarski of the University of Michigan. Now the gap is 45 points.” [New York Times, December 23, 2012]