The hit Broadway play “In the Heights” centers around the story of Nina, a child of the barrio who is the first in her family to go to college, indeed to Stanford. She grapples with financial woes that affect her academic standing and compound her problems. She tells no one until the deans tell her it is too late. She goes home in shame and only with great difficulty tells her family that she has left school.
The family and the community have seen her as heroic for escaping the poverty of their lives. So her fear that she has disappointed them was truly painful. However, her supporters are willing to take desperate steps to get her back to school again. The audiences that fill the seats are not the traditional ones, but look more like the players on the stage and clearly identify with the story. I identified with the dean who had to give Nina the bad news and see the tragedy written on her face.
Nearly half the students who start college do not finish. My book, I CAN Finish College, is the product of many conversations that I have had with hundreds of students sitting across from my desk at New York University, Hunter College, Princeton and Metropolitan College of New York.
My former career was in public affairs and marketing. I understand the importance of communication both for information and for motivation. My years as a dean made clear to me not only the student’s need for more information, but also their need for motivation to tap the resources at hand. At the same time, I knew there was a growing crisis of college attrition among students who are in the first-generation of their families to attend college and among those who are members of minority-groups.
As I contemplated a book to address these concerns, I had conversations with literary agents and publishers early on but concluded that they did not share my sense of urgency or commitment. My research showed that there was nothing on the market that provided the depth of basic information and motivation that these students needed.
In the meantime, the book was taking shape rapidly in my mind, and words began to flow as soon as I sat down at the computer. I established blocks of time to write in spite of the demands of my consulting projects with various colleges, and, in fact, the consulting work often added to the text. My research and my work continued to confirm the importance of the issue.
Given the lack of interest in the traditional publishing world, I explored self-publishing and chose lulu.com to produce and distribute I CAN Finish College. More important, I created a team: a designer, Leah Lococco, editor, Cheryll Greene and two high school interns from the Futures and Options Program to take the book from vision to reality. All had a dedication to and understanding of the book’s purpose, and each added value to it.
There is also something of family legacy in this book. My dedication may have been heightened by my upbringing as the product of a family of educators and the daughter of the civil-rights leader Whitney Young (who headed the National Urban League before his death in 1971). I grew up not only with an appreciation for education but also for its role in empowering people economically. The fact that the administration in Washington is putting so much emphasis on education in general, and in community colleges in particular, which serve largely these non-traditional and minority students, speaks to the appreciation of that work-education nexus that drives college enrollments.
My mother, Margaret Young, an educator and author, passed away last year leaving funds that have been very timely for covering the costs associated with self-publishing and marketing. I think she would be pleased. The goal is to put I CAN Finish College into the hands of the students who need it. Not-for-profits serving this population, colleges, and individuals committed to the cause are buying and giving the book to students and parents who need it.
The students for whom I have written this book have, for the most part, been “first generation” college, minority and non-traditional in age or background. These are the students who often do not complete college. Some of my conversations with students have involved tears of sorrow, anger and sometimes joy. This book is born of the frustration that comes of bringing my experience as a marketing executive to the role of dean and to the issue of the failure of many colleges, perhaps most, to communicate clearly with these student populations the things they need to know to reach the goal of graduation.
Perhaps students of color in particular have found it easier to open up to me as a Black woman in a position of authority, but their experiences have been eye opening for me. Having seen so many of these students bump their noses or worse—hit a wall, I have learned how much this population does not know. I cannot count the number of conversations that began with, “I did not know….” or “No one told me…” and then ended with “what can I do?”
These students know that they need the college degree, and they are desperate to finish. However, they don’t know what the rules are, whom they can trust, or what the processes are for rectifying mistakes. Yet these students are the least likely to ask the questions. Either they don’t want to look dumb, they want to look cool or they actually think they know everything.
For students of color, these are really important considerations. They have been so battered that their egos are more fragile. They are more fearful of failure or appearing stupid, or any of the behaviors that trigger what Dr. Claude Steele has identified as “stereotype threat.”
Given my years as a dean, often tasked with engaging this population, I have learned what the things are that most stymie these students. They do not know the language or structure of college, nor the rules and the resources available and how or why to use them.
Ever-increasing numbers of students are immigrants, low-income and first-generation college students, reflecting the changing demographics of our country. As their numbers have increased on our campuses, overall graduation rates have dropped dramatically in recent years. It was a sense of urgency in this crisis that motivated me to publish my book quickly, and now the need to get it into the hands of those who need it continues to drive my efforts to tell people about it.
Marcia Y. Cantarella has been dean and vice president of student affairs at several colleges and universities. She is now president of Cantarella Consulting of New York City, a firm that works with clients on issues related to access, diversity and student success in higher education. Dr. Cantarella is the author of I CAN Finish College: The Overcome Any Obstacle and Get Your Degree Guide, $17.85, Lulu.com, (January 2011), ISBN: 9780557717316. For more information about the book, see her website, www.icanfinishcollege.com.