When living and studying at an institution like USC, it’s easy to forget the outside world. As students, we’re usually attending classes in fancy buildings and learning from esteemed professors. We also have easy access to a vast array of resources, from things as basic as Wi-Fi to things as complex as research databases.
The setting in which our learning takes place is relatively ideal. The university system is constantly working to improve our access to educational opportunities. And that’s amazing. Most of the students here are passionate about learning, and USC allows them to learn about nearly everything they desire.
At the same time, our idyllic institution exists in an almost separate world from the surrounding neighborhood. Just a couple hundred feet away from the beautiful red brick architecture that defines USC is a community of families and individuals who, for the most part, are living without the privileged prospect of attending a private university.
If you stay close to campus for most of the year, that community doesn’t have to enter your consciousness very often. It’s easy to stay within the confines of the red bricks, especially when they convey familiarity and safety.
But last year, I got a firsthand look into the community surrounding USC and some of the issues it faces when it comes to education. I taught at Hoover Intergenerational Care, a preschool located next to the Caruso Catholic Center. I was there almost every weekday for USC’s Americorps Jumpstart program, which provides language and literacy education to the kids.
Having the opportunity to work with toddlers through Jumpstart and watch them grow is a truly a rewarding experience; I was able to see the impact of my presence in the classroom by the end of the school year.
Being at Hoover felt antithetical to being at USC for me; not a single one of my students was white, while about 30 percent of USC students are white. And none of my students were paying to go to preschool: Hoover is a state-subsidized school for low-income families. At USC, families pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for an education, a cost that would be unfathomable to the low-income families living just off campus.
And yet, the kids at Hoover are still lucky. Because they live across the street from a major university, they’re getting tons of additional help. Student-teachers like me are volunteering their time; the medical schools are providing them with free basic health care like dental check-ups; and when they’re older, and they may be able to attend the 32nd Street/USC Magnet School, where their education will again be bolstered by USC’s resources.
But there are kids just like them all across the United States who aren’t getting the same resources.
I firmly believe that education — from preschool to college — is highly determinative of an individual’s future success. If we aren’t investing in our children’s education from an early stage, we’re setting children up to remain disadvantaged for the rest of their lives. For the most part, the kids who lack access to a great education already come from low-income or minority backgrounds.
While political discussion has become a more commonplace occurrence on social media, education is still a topic that is largely excluded from public discourse, unless U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos pulls some stunt that lights up Twitter and inspires a smattering of sensational headlines. So throughout the semester with this column, I want to talk about what America needs to do to fix our education system.
And not just at the preschool level with kids like the ones I taught at Hoover. Education is a formative experience that spans about two — maybe even three — decades of people’s lives, and there are systemic flaws at every level.
I want to discuss the ways we can support bilingual students: We can’t teach them English, but must also encourage them to use and value the other languages they grew up with in early education. I want to talk about the importance of diversity among teachers, especially in elementary and middle schools. I want to explore school disciplinary practices and the school-to-prison pipeline prevalent at many high schools.
Education at USC is important, too — I want to talk about college affordability and access, so the kids at Hoover who live in the shadow of our towering red bricks can one day see themselves attending USC or a similarly prestigious university. I want to discuss barriers preventing entry into academia, and how bias makes it hard for women and people of color to become tenured faculty.
Education matters because it provides a bedrock foundation for future success. We can no longer champion the American dream or the rags-to-riches philosophy because it isn’t realistic. But I believe that if we can give low-income and minority students the same access to education that more privileged students have, it can set them up to make their American dreams really come true.
Karan Nevatia is a sophomore majoring in journalism. He is also the multimedia editor of the Daily Trojan. His column, “School of Thought,” runs every other Thursday.