Over the course of three years, I have met peers and friends from countries near and far. In the meeting these individuals, I’ve learned of the struggles that one may encounter in seeking to get an education. As being an American, I’ve never thought twice about getting an education. Yes, college is and can be very expensive, but I never questioned the accessibility of college. As a working-class Black American, I know how expensive higher-education can be if your parents or family doesn’t have money to pay for it. Nonetheless, financial aid would be an option. However, is this the case for everyone? Is education truly accessible for every individual that we may encounter in our classes or in our personal lives?
If you hold American citizenship, you are afforded privilege. Yes, that is a huge statement to make. Yes, it is a political statement too. However, I know the layered reality of being American and how it is very nuanced. Nonetheless, American citizenship entitles an individual with a lifestyle that is free from many of the struggles of those that do not hold citizenship and those that aren’t documented. Now, how do I know about these struggles as an American with privileges due to her citizenship? Well, keep reading.
About a year ago, I encountered students that were unable to travel on a trip with their classmates because of their immigration status. Due to their lack of documentation, this group of students stayed behind at school and had to miss their end-of-year trip. As I spoke to these students, I began to understand how privilege doesn’t come without its responsibilities. In the case of these students, some could argue that they were being punished for their immigration status. While others may simply state that they were out of luck. For me, I asked the question, “how are we making education accessible to those that aren’t documented, without citizenship or aren’t financially able?”. Now, this is just one scenario to think about as we travel down this journey of accessibility and privilege.
In my college experience, I’ve met undocumented and international students that have forced me to check my own privilege. For some international students, working isn’t optional. Why? Families are unable to fund their child’s education and housing while in American. Also, the dollar can be valued at a higher rate than their country’s currency. In putting this in perspective, if you are an international student that is taking undergraduate courses at a full-time status (12 credit hours or more) at the international rate at a currency-rate that is much higher than where you are from, your family can go into poverty in trying to sponsor you. Now, I’ve met students from several countries and their parents are able to sponsor their student’s housing and education. However, this isn’t true for some international students. In the case of those students that are coming from poor families, working doubles or triples and going to school full-time becomes mandatory. Not only is this mandatory for students without a choice, but many of these same students are working extremely hard to send money back home to family that has sacrificed savings to send them here to study.
Over this past summer, I observed at a local Kansas City, Missouri high-school within two ESL (English as a second language) classes and some of the students would tell me how they would come from school and work full-shifts afterwards and during the night to help their families since they knew more English than their parents. For one older student from Tanzania, he shared with me that he wanted to join the military like his older brother in order to acquire American citizenship to make his life easier. In conversing with these students, I knew that their narratives and those from my college-classes had to become centered. I never knew about the struggles of undocumented or international students. Honestly, I thought education was extremely accessible because of financial-aid. However, this is simply a fantasy and a realization of unchecked privilege.
Yesterday, I went on my usual coffee-break and saw a good friend of mine. As usual, we engaged in small-talk and eventually changed the topic to education. As a Sudanese-American, my friend began to tell me of the trials of those in her country and how the youth are dying to get the chance to come to America to become educated. In her life, she told me of the struggles of her parents and how they have sacrificed for her to be in America. As she spoke of the struggles of her parents and those back in her country, tears began to roll from her eyes. She told me that I would never understand and only those with her experience could know the hardship(s) associated with trying to get an American education.
As I reflect on my own position in this world, I know that there’s no space for unchecked privilege when people are “dying” to have the thing(s) that I have or take for granted. Quickly I am reminded that I need to take back-seat and allow others to take charge of their narratives. As a person of privilege, I can’t control the narratives of others. As a Black American, I understand oppression well, but I understand my position as being an American. For many, it is easy to complain about the cost of education and how it would be nice to simply go to school without working, but for those that aren’t financially-able and for those that aren’t given the privilege to simply go to school without work, please stop and check your privilege. As someone once said, “the world doesn’t revolve around you”.