Monday, May 19, 2008

Think good thoughts

Living in Los Angeles, I've seen some stark financial contrasts in lifestyle, especially working at a county-wide non-profit teen newspaper that includes staff writers from tony zip codes in Beverly Hills and Brentwood (kids whose parents by them BMW Z30s for their birthdays) to the much more impoverished areas of South and East Los Angeles (kids who can't come to the office because they can't afford the $5 daypass on public trans, and if they could would take the 2.5-hour bus trip because the parents were working on Saturday).

The contrast is unsettling to me in a general sense of income disparity (then again I'm a socialist pretty much), but by and large I am OK with it in that the students who come from wealthy backgrounds tend to be incredibly empathetic, do not flaunt (even those who drive the nice rides) and have strong commitments to social justice. Some of my favorite students ever come from wealthy backgrounds and except for knowing their zip codes, I'd never even consider them wealthy given their work ethics, humbleness and lack of materialism. And would it not be the apex of ridiculous unfairness to begrudge them their parents' success?

However, come college admissions time I'm confronted with the longterm consequences of these varied upbringings. Most of our students attend four-year college and virtually all begin some kind of post-highschool education, which is awesome. But the students from wealthier backgrounds with parents who are college graduates (esp. when American-born) and who attended strong high schools with lots of college counselors and who could afford SAT-type prep classes end up choosing among Stanford, an Ivy, UCLA, Berkeley and other super-reputable colleges, our other students' lists are smaller (b/c they couldn't afford to apply to as many schools) and more likely to include the Cal-States and often not the Ivys.

This is NOT to say that the elite-reputed schools offer better educations for everyone. THEY ABSO-FUCKING-LUTELY do not. For me the best school was the University of Arizona; though I know I could have done the work at a UCLA or Northwestern. But I knew what I wanted in a school ... far away, bigtime athletics, lots and lots of majors and a-non CUTTHROAT environment, affordable. I got that and it started me on a life course that has taken me to a dream job, so how the fuck can I complain?

But though it's a dream job, it of course has it's challenges. Talking with a friend yesterday, she remarked that as I share stories about the students at L.A. Youth she sometimes gets a little envious that I get to hang out with such cool, brilliant, idealistic kids. When I see that they might not be able to pursue their dreams because of money problems, it's the most frustrating thing ever (well that might be tied with students who don't have that problem but short-circuit themselves because they squander advantages). It makes me want to be ridiculously wealthy so that I can help them. Sadly, when tuition at many private schools is more than $30,000 a year I am far outside the realm of being able to assist.

This all brings me to RGC, one of the nicest, sweetest, kindest, coolest students I've ever worked with. She wants to be a fashion designer. She's got skills, I've seen some of her sketches and they're great. She's been admitted to Parsons (Project Runway school) but the school costs an estimated $50,000-plus per year (tuition plus housing et al). They've offered her like $7,500 per year. She's an immigrant (yeah, she's legal) so not entitled to the federal student loan program or Pell Grant program. She has a scholarship but if she goes for more, the school has already said that it'll cut its aid offer.

She's on a plane right now headed to NYC to tour the school and hopes to meet with a financial aid counselor at the school to make her case. We met with her this past week to give her a pep talk and offer advice about how to make her case. I helped her with her appeal letter. Now all I can do is sit powerless hoping that she's successful (first in being able to schedule a meeting, second in acing it). So think good thoughts.

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