Lessons learned by high school and college dropouts who ultimately became faculty members (opinion)
Lessons learned by high school and college dropouts who ultimately became faculty members (opinion)

I failed out of high school when I was 16. Today I am a professor at the University of Oregon, teaching and mentoring students whose mean secondary school grade point average is 3.8 -- far better than mine was decades ago. Lately I’ve found myself thinking about my improbable path from high school dropout to professor. In 2017, I ordered a copy of my high school transcripts for the first time. A stranger looking at all my C’s, D’s and F’s might conclude I was a disinterested and undisciplined student. But official records rarely tell a person’s full story.

I look at my ninth-grade marks and remember the violent fight my mother and her boyfriend -- I’ll call him Mike -- got into the weekend before school started in Sonoma County, Calif. Mike was a midlevel coke dealer on whom we were financially dependent. My mom was also dependent on his coke.

Like many times before, Mike kicked us out of the house that night. I grabbed a pair of clothes and shoes and ran out the front door barefoot. With no money for a motel, my mother drove our sputtering, unregistered VW Bug to a Kmart parking lot, where we waited until morning.

The rest of ninth grade saw more of the same: we had no home of our own and bounced around between other people’s houses like the ball in a pinball machine. I often left books and homework at the last place we fled and arrived at school empty-handed. My cumulative GPA that year was 2.25.

In 10th grade, my cumulative GPA was 2.01. My mother and I had moved into a run-down house with three 18-year-olds. Life there was a constant party. One roommate and his friends were heavy crank users and rarely slept. Mom was too strung out to work. I eventually took a part-time job at a burger stand that paid enough to cover groceries. To pay rent, Mom re-established contact with Mike, who was as volatile and aggressive as he was generous.

When I look at the row and columns representing 11th grade, I see myself at 16 trying to get my mother out of the van she briefly lived in and put a roof over our heads. I initiated a desperate exchange with Mike, trading sex with him for a place to live. He rented me a condo. Sadly, I remember feeling like I had exercised control over my life for the first time.

I focused hard on school during this period and managed a 2.83 the first semester of junior year, the crowning achievement of my high school career. But when I started pulling away from Mike, chaos and instability ensued. I stopped attending school completely after spring break. I became a high school dropout.

After I turned 18, I left Sonoma County. I drove to Southern California, where I became a certified nurse’s aide and worked weekend and evening home-health-care jobs while attending a community college full-time. From there, I transferred to Virginia Commonwealth University, which accepted me based on my community college transcripts. I had not taken the GED. I got my bachelor’s degree in English from the university and then decided I wanted to go to graduate school. I started reading everything I could get my hands on and taking notes that, two decades later, I still have in a three-ring binder. I eventually entered a doctoral program in communications research at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where I studied media history and feminist media theory.

By the time I started graduate school, I don’t think my peers could see or sense my educational deficits. However, it’s taken years to overcome the psychological barrier of feeling out of place in academe. And even as I worked toward my doctorate, I suffered my own brand of impostor syndrome, worrying that my degrees were somehow illegitimate. Part of me thought I had exploited a loophole that should not have been available to me -- that maybe my degrees were built on a foundation of sand.

A Broader Look

Through graduate school, a postgrad fellowship and my university faculty positions, I often wondered if other dropout professors were out there. I decided to find out and turned to Academic Twitter, but I feared the odds were stacked against my quest. High school dropouts rarely go to college. As for the GED, every longitudinal study suggests the exam does not function as a pathway to higher education. Nearly 40 percent of high school graduates get a postsecondary degree, but less than 5 percent of GED holders do. GEDs drop out of community colleges, four-year universities and even basic military training in higher numbers than high school graduates. And they drop out earlier, too.

Critics of the GED, like John Heckman and Yona Rubenstein, argue that the GED self-selects for people who possess traits that may be incompatible with meeting long-term goals. It is also likely that the social and economic antecedents to dropping out are still present when a GED holder enters a postsecondary degree program. What is certain is that a stigma is attached to the GED, which decreases its value as the primary educational escape route for dropouts.

Despite the odds, within a few days, I heard from four professors with dropout pasts. I share three of their stories below. (The fourth requested anonymity.) I also interviewed three remarkable graduate students who were former dropouts. Their stories reveal that there is no universal dropout experience. Not everyone drops out because of instability, violence or poverty. Indeed, two reported coming from economically stable and even supportive families.

The interviews also suggest that gender, race, class, ethnicity, geography and the ways in which they intersect shape the dropout experience. The fact that California figured prominently in the stories reveals the essential role the presence of a robust, open-admission college system plays in giving dropouts a second chance.

Recognition and an Act of Leniency

Obed Silva is an English professor at East Los Angeles College who immigrated from Mexico to the United States as a child with his mother, who was fleeing Silva’s abusive father. They settled in Orange County, where Silva started associating with gang members and experimenting with drugs at age 11. He was kicked out of every school he attended before dropping out in ninth grade.

One of the final schools he attended was located inside the barbed-wire gates of Orange County’s Youth Guidance Center. The district bused him in each morning and, as if to portend his fate, had him attend school with juvenile offenders. Silva likened this experience to “being conditioned to fail.”

At 16, he was sentenced to nine months at the Los Pinos Conservation Camp for grand theft auto. It was there that he took a GED prep class but “thought nothing of it” upon passing the exam. “It just felt like a piece of paper to me,” he said.

But after his release, his mother enrolled him in a psychology class at Golden West College in Huntington Beach. Unfortunately, a rival gang member was also taking classes there, and during a confrontation in the food court, Silva stabbed him in the abdomen with a pencil and was banned from the campus.

Two months later, Silva was shot in the back by a clerk during a liquor store robbery and paralyzed, an event that left him reliant on a wheelchair, angry and depressed. In the meantime, his mother had saved up enough to buy a house in San Diego, where she enrolled him in a reading class at a community college. He eked by with a C. Not long after the term ended, he drove to a house party in Orange County and shot another gang member in the leg. To make bail, his mother put her new house up for collateral.

While his trial was underway, Silva took an English class at Cypress College. Cypress was the fourth community college he had attended, having also failed out of a history class at Santa Ana College. After class one day, his professor called him over and praised his essay as among the finest pieces of student writing she had seen. He was skeptical because he could see “red marks all over his essay.” But, Silva said, “just the recognition made me feel really great.”

He took additional classes at Cypress while awaiting a 12-year jail sentence and met with his professor regularly. She sat in court with Silva’s family the day he expected to be taken into custody. But the judge gave Silva five years of probation rather than prison, an act of leniency that was based, in part, on a probation report that emphasized Silva’s recent successes in college.

Silva went on to earn an associate degree, a bachelor’s degree and a master’s in English from Cal State Los Angeles, where he met Michael Calabrese, a scholar of medieval literature who wore elegant suits and challenged his students to embrace the beauty and complexity of medieval literature. Now, at East Los Angeles, Silva teaches courses in medieval and Renaissance literature.

A Legal Emancipation

Jessica Pliley is an associate professor of women’s and gender history at Texas State University San Marcos. She took the GED in the late 1990s at a Colorado testing center. Pliley had spent much of her life to that point living an unsettled, peripatetic existence with a mother who suffered from an untreated bipolar disorder. The pair were homeless by the time she was 13. Despite the instability, her mother expected her to excel in school, and Pliley’s “self-value became tied to grades.”

At 14, Pliley and her mother spent a year “couch surfing” in the wealthy coastal community of La Jolla, Calif., where Pliley attended ninth grade at a public school that educated the children of the La Jolla elite. She may have been homeless, but she was taking classes taught by high school teachers with doctorates. The next year, she and her mother moved in with family in Utah and, eventually, she moved in with her father in Oklahoma. But, she said, her “family situation got really untenable and strange, so I just bolted.” She drove her old Dodge Omni to Denver and lived on her own.

Pliley was 17 and could not act legally on her own behalf. She could not enroll herself in school. “I was actually pushed to drop out because I was living in a nontraditional situation,” she explained. She worked full-time for a couple years before getting her GED and enrolling in classes at Metropolitan State University of Denver, an open-admission university that did not require her to produce high school transcripts.

College can be a liminal space of freedom for students with strong family ties and resources, but those who lack them can be excluded and even trapped by the legal vagaries of their status between minor and adult. To pursue her education, Pliley was forced to legally emancipate herself from her parents in her 20s, a process she described as “harder than taking the GED.”

A Full-Circle Journey

Robert Rosenfeld grew up four blocks from the University of California, Los Angeles. Like a lot of kids coming of age in California in the 1960s and ’70s, he was drawn to antiestablishment views. He described himself as a teen who “wrote really inaccessible and obscure poetry and hung out with people who were experimenting with various alternative types of things.” At 12, he was spending more time on the UCLA campus than at school.

He sometimes rode his bike to the UCLA Library and did “deep dives” into whatever topic happened to interest him. Rosenfeld and a friend also often spent time in the student union, where they looked like miniature versions of the full-grown hippies on campus.

One day, a man in an ROTC uniform confronted them. A chase ensued, and Rosenfeld slammed into a plate-glass door and shattered it to pieces. He was charged with vandalism, the first in a series of misdemeanors for loitering, vagrancy and truancy that he racked up between the ages of 14 and 16, after which the district kicked him out of high school for absenteeism.

A few months later, Rosenfeld enrolled in California Western University, a San Diego-based residential Methodist school, but he got kicked out for poor performance. He moved back to Los Angeles and worked odd jobs before eventually enrolling at the local community college and taking the SAT.

A year later, he transferred to UCLA; Rosenfeld remembers his mother’s surprise when the university accepted him without a high school diploma or GED. He eventually received his B.S. in chemistry from UCLA and went on to get his Ph.D. in chemistry from Stanford University. From there, he took a position at University of California, Davis, ultimately gaining tenure.

The Essential Role of Open-Access and Community Colleges

What do these stories tell us?

Only two of the seven dropouts I interviewed had ever met another dropout in academe.

It is possible that our limited awareness of each other is aggravated by the fact that dropping out is a topic most of us avoid in casual conversation. But even Pliley, who has never concealed her dropout status from other academics, had never encountered another dropout professor. When she mentions dropping out, she often notices “an amazement or shock that’s a little annoying or patronizing … a moment of surprise [that] really reveals the way academia is constructed as a bougie sort of space.”

The paucity of dropouts and GEDs in academia suggests the many paradoxes at the heart of the American higher education system. While colleges and universities often promote themselves as engines of social mobility, becoming a professor after being a high school dropout remains only slightly easier than threading a camel through the eye of a needle.

None of the dropouts I spoke with benefited from formal advising relationships. Scattered throughout the interviews were stories of dropouts receiving informal help. Friends, girlfriends, boyfriends and, in one case, a crush helped or provided advice when it came to getting into college, applying for financial aid or learning how to study. Chance encounters of generosity by teachers and librarians made up the balance of assistance they received.

Community colleges and open-admission universities played an essential role in every dropout story I heard. Silva and Rosenfeld both benefited from the same California community college system I did. Open-admission schools are the genuine engines of social and economic mobility.

Finally, we have a system of higher education that is geared toward parents and families, not self-directed, independent students. Students are increasingly judged on what they have accomplished before they reach adulthood, achievements their parents tout to broker entrance into prestige institutions.

Meanwhile, risk-averse, ratings-conscious universities increasingly expect students to arrive on their campuses preformed, a situation that leaves less room for those of us who, by necessity or choice, find less direct paths to learning. In this context, community colleges, city colleges and opportunity universities are often overshadowed, dismissed and stigmatized. But they continue to play a vital role in providing second chances to first-gen students and dropouts who either start over or refuse to quit.

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