This year marks my 25th as a professional geographer. My work has focused on the educational, environmental, and health challenges faced by vulnerable groups. Currently, I direct a National Science Foundation sponsored program to engage Philadelphia inner-city high school students in building information technology skills related to geography. Last summer I worked with a group of the students involved in the program. Despite my years of professional experience, I was unprepared to encounter first-hand the stark reality they face and overcome everyday in an effort to better their lives.
One student was struggling with the news of an unplanned pregnancy just after having been accepted to a nationally ranked engineering university.
Another student who could barely read was a master at maneuvering web-based social networking applications and spoke eloquently about the constant dangers at school and in the neighborhood.
Nearly all had been affected personally by early deaths of family members, friends and classmates due to gun violence. This reality was symbolized for me by the rest-in-peace tee shirt one of the students often wore in memory of a cousin killed last year.
I was saddened to hear first hand accounts of the low expectations for their lives from the adults and so-called mentors in their world. One day the students explained that our public, urban university is a “reach” school – that is, one that their Magnet School counselors suggest they apply to despite the small chance they will be admitted.
These students are the ones written off by the system. They are expected to settle for second best opportunities and to opt out of the fierce competition to enter high valued careers in science and technology.
Yet what I saw on a daily basis last summer was a room filled with bright, optimistic, thoughtful students, engaged and interested in science and technology and the world around them. Our seminar room became a setting for dialogs about diversity in American society, sharing concerns for the problems of global warming, and developing a sophisticated understanding of the strengths and problems of their communities and how they relate to a wider world. They understood and used information technologies in ways that pale in comparison to many of my college educated peers.
This summer, the students became my young mentors. They helped me to understand that they have come of age at a time when parents and teachers do not see, value or even understand their knowledge. Nor do they understand how to help them convert their genius at using information technologies into educational and work opportunities that can move them out of poverty.
The ability to thrive in science and technology careers requires much more than a college degree. One must be extremely persistent, resilient, intellectually curious and dedicated to move forward despite setbacks common to the research process. I believe that the young students I have come to know are gifted with these unspoken qualities necessary for success. We must provide a pathway for the fulfillment of their talents.
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