In June, I became the first member of my family to receive a Ph.D.
To clarify, I have aunts and uncles with Ph.D’s, but I was the first to be educated entirely in the United States. In the decade or so since I received my undergraduate degree, I have done some things I’m proud of, but none has made my parents happier than calling their son a doctor — even if there’s no blood involved.
Last week, I organized a graduate school forum at Lincoln for mass communication majors interested in pursuing a master’s or doctorate degree. More than 40 students showed up as representatives from Temple, Penn, Villanova, Columbia, West Chester, and Penn State made their grad school pitches.
One thing I learned is graduate school is still a foreign concept for some of my students because they come from families where education often isn’t emphasized as a foundation for success. This became apparent recently when four of my students told me they couldn’t return to school in the spring because of their financial circumstance. They all noted that their families encouraged them to drop out. This forced me to put my own cultural upbringing into perspective.
When I was 17, I told my dad that I didn’t want to go to college. He laughed and proceeded to give me a “you’d-better-or-else” speech. For many of my students, college is a means to an end. If that end can be reached without getting a graduate degree, or a bachelor’s for that matter, all the better.
While I was raised to believe that education was all-important and that more advanced degrees represented cultural capital within my community, many of my students don’t share that belief. Some of their views on education are shaped by class, family and geography, but it’s also based on misconceptions about what it takes to get into graduate programs.
That’s why I think we as HBCU faculty can do more to let our students know how accessible graduate school can be. While I don’t think graduate school is for everyone, I think we owe it to our students to at least allow them options beyond the vocational/professional models that many HBCU administrators seem to emphasize.
One of my mentors, Joseph Selden at Penn State, has spent the last 15 years recruiting students from HBCUs to come to Happy Valley. At least a handful of those students are now professors, pushing the next generation of HBCU students to a degree beyond their B.A.
When education is emphasized as a key to cultural, symbolic — and financial — capital at home and school, it becomes more of a tangible goal. The fact that Selden and my dad kept bugging me to go to graduate school years after I became an established journalist and author facilitated my return to academia.
I only hope I can be a similar pest to some of my students as they begin the next phase of their lives.
Dr. Murali Balaji is an assistant professor in the Department of English and Mass Communications at Lincoln University.