Meritocracy, imprinting, and love: an ode to community college

I think I had one of the most frustrating conversations in my personal history yesterday. I know it’s pretty awful of me to start off my first piece of writing in *months* with a sentence which immediately conveys a sense of negativity, but I promise you I will take you somewhere warm and fuzzy by the end of this piece. It is my wheelhouse, after all. I think people expect it from me, and heck, at this point, I demand it of myself.

I just moved to beautiful Santa Barbara a week and a half ago. Well, my address says Goleta. But also the sign outside my apartment says, “Welcome to Isla Vista!” And all those things say something different. Goleta is a tiny, unknown place within SB County, but its location nearby the dominant municipality here already brings to mind beaches, bungalows, and bougie people (think bourgeoisie when I use that word). It’s generally very affluent, with small Mexican American communities interspersed, and, sadly, you know very obviously when you come across one of those. Isla Vista is easily more well-heard of than Goleta, but it’s more the title of the neighborhoods surrounding UC Santa Barbara. It’s populated by some Mexican-American families, but mostly students attending either the giant four year institution next-door or Santa Barbara City College, which is some miles away.

I’ve been waiting to be at this campus for the last two years. My love for it happened serendipitously, but after a moment of initial infatuation, it’s been a constant avalanche of affection every day that I find out more about where I am and about the community itself. It was certainly no accident that I ended up here. Beyond that, I’m incredibly grateful. It has been a long and arduous journey. So many teeth, so many nails! But I made it, and I feel super relieved. I earned my two years here, and I certainly don’t plan on being humble about it.

My dad came to visit me the other day. He lives in Tracy, so he told me he was up at three am and out the door by four just to spend the afternoon with me. He stopped by my sister’s college, about two hours north from me, to check up on her, and then made his way to my beautiful little seaside town listening to the not-as-good 80’s music I’ve known him to enjoy from time to time. When he arrived, he brought a box of things my mom had packed for me because I had absentmindedly forgotten them back home as well as a care-package from my stepmom. In the care package was a pretty little canvas print with the following quote:

“Don’t ever forget where you came from, but always remember where you are going.”

And I’m still ruminating on this. Particularly because of the frustrating-friend-conversation. You’ll see where I go in a second.

I don’t even know how I got into this conversation with my buddy, but I think I was referencing the intense homesickness I’ve been feeling. It’s normal and expected, I suppose. This is my first time moving out of my hometown, and, especially, being away from my family and close friends compounds that. His reply was that if I joined more things and participated, those feelings would soon go away, and that I certainly shouldn’t worry. And then I felt misunderstood.

I don’t want my homesickness to go away.

I’m going to give you a second to, Iunno, flip over your desk, overturn your mug of scalding hot tea, roll your eyes, or silently promise yourself to sever all ties with me, because I know that that sentiment is going to cause some frustration in the people who will read this. And it makes sense. Cause, Jacqueline, why leave if you want to be back home? Jacqueline, why choose to be sad and mopey? Jacqueline, this is not a mature way to do college! Jacqueline, you’re robbing yourself of opportunities to blossom in your new home.

And argh, no, no, no! No! Just thinking about those rebuttals makes me feel so unloved! And I said as much to my friend who remarked that I was exemplifying a “CC attitude.” How community college of me–that is, how culturally/academically/class-wise *inferior* of me. My hair was nearly on fire, I swear.

I have two ways of explaining this here! One, I’m going to tell you from my own sociological perspective as to why this line of thinking is harmful to students like me. And two, I’m going to tell you from a biological perspective why you should accept me for the odd duck I am AND THAT PUN WAS ABSOLUTELY INTENDED. I don’t pun by accident, people, I just don’t.

By and large, we necessitate that people in the U.S. follow a life-path that is linear and cookie cutter in order to qualify as socially successful and acceptable. You’re born, you go to school, you graduate college, you enter the workforce, you marry, you have a family, you die. If that is your cup of tea, that’s great! I don’t think there is inherently anything bad about that lifestyle, in and of itself, and many of its elements appeal to me. *However,* when we come to expect that everyone should follow that model, we become very limiting in our scope of diversity of people, of lives and experiences. We care more that people behave in a manner which comforts us based on our idea of what a good person is as opposed to what *their* idea of a good person is. That, to me, is terribly unempathetic and dehumanizing. Homogenizing our society’s beliefs renders us incapable of creative problem solving, of critical thinking, and of cultivating our own individual selves. That kind of society is one that is arguably lacking self-awareness and self-regulation on both a macro and micro level.

I wouldn’t have any of those beliefs if it were not for community college.

I spent six years attending CC classes. A mixture of poverty and ignorance led me through its doors, but what led me out was the richness of new and varied knowledge. There is *no* substitute for the privilege I had in working so closely with professors holding master’s and PhD’s in their fields–those little pieces of paper made them the guardians of worldliness in my opinion. I don’t think they even know how brilliant a gal can get when she combines all the talents of these giant harbingers of education. But I do! And it’s pretty amazing.

So imagine my heartache on my first day of class last week when I enter the music *performance* hall and am met with *literally* 400 people taking Environmental Studies 1 with Dr. Alagona, who is a spritely history professor wandering the stage with a mic headset I swear I’ve only seen the likes of Britney Spears sporting.

You’re freaking kidding me.

No intimacy, no love, no connection. He’s a fantastic lecturer, don’t get me wrong! But I felt more like a product on an assembly line than a budding protege (which is saying something because UCSB makes a much bigger effort than most colleges to increase the professional relationship between its faculty and undergraduate students).

That is the attitude of a four year though–you are on your own. You are your own responsibility. If you follow this set of rules and guidelines you will succeed because you have “done the hard work.” Doesn’t that make *you* angry? It makes me feel so frustrated and powerless. I love school because I love feeling educated. Knowledge allows me to be a more helpful person, to give back and care for things and people I adore. Keeping that knowledge from me under layers of bureaucracy or numeric requirements is downright offensive and steeped in myths of American exceptionalism and American meritocracy.

Few institutions embody those myths like a four-year university does. The majority of these cats got in here straight out of high school with four-point-something GPAs and shining SAT scores. I can *smell* the predisposition towards the status-quo emanating from their taut, tanned, highly privileged bodies.

Lani Guinier’s new book, The Tyranny of the Meritocracy: Democratizing Higher Education in America (Beacon Press, 2015) describes how higher education has drifted from a mission-driven to an admission-driven system, focused almost exclusively on the predictive value of the SAT-type tests for success in the first-year of college. In fact, as she notes, the SAT only has a modest correlation with freshman-year grades, whereas grades in the four years of high school are a much stronger predictor of academic success. Guinier asserts that the SAT’s most reliable value is as a proxy for wealth in its norming to white, upper-middle class performance, as shown by the average SAT test scores based on ethnicity.”

http://www.racismreview.com/blog/2015/08/20/test-ocratic-merit-vs-democratic-merit/

This is the first source I found describing this phenomenon, but it is not the only only page on this inquiry and its subsequent findings. And, in particular, this is definitely what I see on my own campus as well. The racial and class homogenization is blatant and stifling compared to the CC’s I attended.

So then the rebuttal becomes why should that matter if I’m getting my education? If I can just keep my head down and focused, I can chug through it. And then afterward I’ll leave, and I’ll be okay. Or even beyond that, why can’t I just make lemonade out of an awkward situation?

I can and plan to try to do those things for as long as it is feasible. All kinds of students in my position do this on a daily basis. We hold in our discomfort because we don’t want to let ourselves down or our friends or our families. And let me say this loud and clear–

our friends and families expect and need us to move on once we come here.

I’ll return to that in a bit, but to go back, needing to put aside our needs for community we don’t actually connect with easily affects our mental health. And I can get as involved with the queer POC and environmentalists on my campus all I damn well please, but it won’t change the fact that those are islands in a sea of people who make me feel unsafe–a sea of people who remind me that the world is unsafe for queer, radical women of color, especially.

Seven recent studies reveal how the wealthy and the powerful morph into hypocrites, here defined as “people who pretend to have admirable principles, beliefs, or feelings but behave otherwise.” Before we attain success, we often do possess admirable principles, beliefs, or feelings. Once successful, our self-possession is warped into pretension by success. Anecdotally, we see this time and again. A politician starts out, like New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez, fighting graft and corruption, and winds up indicted for graft and corruption. Today, we have the damning data to support the anecdotal evidence. An academic roundup of the recent findings reveals:

In studies 1 and 2, upper-class individuals were more likely to break the law while driving, relative to lower-class individuals. In follow-up laboratory studies, upper-class individuals were more likely to exhibit unethical decision-making tendencies (study 3), take valued goods from others (study 4), lie in a negotiation (study 5), cheat to increase their chances of winning a prize (study 6), and endorse unethical behavior at work (study 7) than were lower-class individuals.”

http://www.salon.com/2015/04/19/the_1_percent_plays_us_for_suckers_there_is_no_meritocracy_and_theyve_strangled_the_american_dream/

I realize now that the true paradisical microcosm was community college–our four year institutions resemble the “real world”  in some ways that are not necessarily any less oppressive. On my community college campus I was surrounded more by people like me or at least people who embraced/mirrored my identity. I felt more at ease, definitely, and far more willing to be open. There is no substitute for the home you’ve already made for yourself, and making a new one here would require a considerable amount of energy.

Which brings me to my last point, and perhaps the most important of them all. I need you to remember this for the next two years.

I don’t replace people.

I don’t remember if I mentioned this anywhere on this blog, but I’ve certainly talked about it with others outside this medium before. My favorite biology professor did the most wonderful unit on the biology of love and sex in a class I took with her over a year ago. She described a phenomenon wherein some organisms have shown high oxytocin levels and have especially elevated loyal and protective behaviors. Ones that can even get a little fierce and aggressive at times. I’ve always suspected that I fall into this category–since I was a scrawny (yes, I was scrawny) thing protecting my friends from boys who would tease them on the playground or offering myself to get into physical fights with catty adolescent girls who were bullying my classmates. Most of these were just innocent childhood misunderstandings gone very, *very* awry, and yet I was appointing myself bodyguard constantly. As an adult, many of these feelings haven’t changed–I still see myself as the first line of defense for many of the people I love.

I think this characteristic made me especially predisposed to perhaps literally imprinting on the important people and places back home! Behold, imprinting:

Imprinting refers to a critical period of time early in an animal’s life when it forms attachments and develops a concept of its own identity. Birds and mammals are born with a pre-programmed drive to imprint onto their mother. Imprinting provides animals with information about who they are and determines who they will find attractive when they reach adulthood.

“Lorenz’s work with geese and ducks provided concrete evidence that there are critical sensitive periods in life where certain types of learning can take place. And, once that learning is ‘fixed,’ it is the least likely to be forgotten or unlearned.

http://www.pbs.org/wnet/nature/my-life-as-a-turkey-whos-your-mama-the-science-of-imprinting/7367/

I may not be a baby goose, and my loved ones are certainly not all my mother. But I attended community college during one of the most sensitive points in my life. I’ve been very influenced by it, and to this day, I am fiercely loyal to the people and experiences during my years in attendance.

Over the last week, especially, I’ve been feeling like the bird kicked out of the nest. I know my mom’s got it rough, but I feel like my conversations with so many people back home have had a tinge of, “why are you dwelling on all of us up here? You’re somewhere new. You left us. You can’t have your cake and eat it too. I expect you to move on.”

I get that. It feels neat and tidy. It feels *normal.*

But that’s exactly the thing. Neither my educational background nor my brain’s possible physiology allow me to take the normal route here. I love you because I love you. I want to see you and talk to you because I want to see you and I want to talk to you. My location doesn’t change that. And it shouldn’t. So please accept that you’re still a priority in my life even though I’m far away.

Don’t tell me that’s “a CC attitude.” Don’t tell me I’m only hurting myself by not throwing myself into the four-year lifestyle with reckless abandon. I am not behaving in an immature, ignorant, confusing way. There are no mixed messages here. I know where home is, and I don’t need to be reminded that home can change or that I can have two homes.

Where I “come from” is not behind me, and where I “am going” doesn’t have to be any different or any better than what I already had. I have autonomy, and I know what I want. I’m living in a gorgeous place getting a badass, first rate education, but you’d better recognize that I’m still striving for this:

This is Point Reyes National Seashore. It’s in the Bay Area. I want to be close to it. And to you. ❤ See you soon.

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