Why Our Low-Income Students Need College Mentoring

by lizriggs


It’s 11 at night, and I’ve just opened an email from one of my former students. After a few minutes, I begin to cry.

As I read the email, I remember what K.* and I have talked about. We had sat down several weeks ago and gone over his class schedule, ordered some of his books online and looked through his syllabi. He was in several remedial classes that he wouldn’t receive credit for, burdening his class load even more. He was also working thirty hours a week in addition to taking a full schedule of sixteen hours. He was living at home and paying for most of his classes with grants and loans, and working at a restaurant to pay for books and life.


I remember when this charmingly sweet Jamaican boy sat down in my third period English class during my first year of teaching with his thick accent and a grin that covered half of his face. He wore a blingin’ belt with his shirt tucked in and stereotypically or not, he was always smiling, always happy, and always a little bit, well, out of it. He would tell me he wanted to be a police officer, which horrified me and the other teachers because the thought of him driving around with the authority to ticket people was terrifying.

Very quickly, I noticed K.’s reading, writing and spelling skills were lagging tragically behind those of his peers— even though the majority of his peers were grade levels behind in reading to begin with.

Some of this was a language barrier; as a Jamaican, he spoke English, yes. But, he also spoke a Jamaican Patois that I would hear when he picked up the phone to talk to his mother, his language suddenly becoming incomprehensible.

Some of it was his educational background (Jamaica cites hundreds of thousands of its 9th graders as being unable to read or write, and there is no free education after 6th grade).

Some of it was perhaps his own lack of interest and work ethic in school.


Back at the burrito joint, we eat quesadillas and work through a brainstorm of his first big college paper. It’s a vague topic, and he has to turn in an outline to be approved first. We discuss that a reputable source means “legit,” and after some brainstorming, K. lands on the subject of immigration; later that week, I send him very specific instructions (quite literally, a fill-in-the-blank guide) for how to complete his outline using what we had started with.

It’s now 11 p.m. a week and half later; I have downloaded the outline and am searching the screen as if something were missing, my brain is being bombarded with guilt and frustration and sorrow, I put my hand over my sternum,  then both of my hands  over my face, covering the tears and wiping my noise and  the backs of my eyelids and my lips and my cheeks.

He’s not going to make it, I think. How can he make it?

I had been wired and trained and determined to believe otherwise—to fiercely uphold the ideal that no matter what, he could do this—that every student, no matter his circumstances could rise above and graduate from a four year college.

But this outline, this outline with five roman numerals and five sentences, only two of which made any sense at all, this outline was the work of a third or fourth grade student. This outline was the work that a teacher never wants to see come across her desk, because, no, of course, no, please, this can’t be real; this student can’t truly be at this level and be enrolled in a four year college. Could he?

And so, I cried. I cried because I felt like even in my years of weekend tutoring and paper editing and summer library sessions, he had still ended up so behind. I cried because he was working so hard, so hard always, and it was still not enough. I cried because of how proud he was and how proud his family was and how proud I was. I cried because I was afraid he wouldn’t make it. I cried because I didn’t believe he was going to make it. I cried because I knew how many other students out there have made it this far and don’t have me crying for them.

We push our students through elementary and middle school and high school and then they get to college and we assume that they can do it all on their own, that they are grown; that they are ready. And, many students can. Many students will. But lots of them will not. Lots of them are not ready. They are going into college and they cannot read twelfth grade material. They are going into college and they are working forty hours a week and in class for sixteen and the only hours left are for sleeping and studying. They are behind and then they fall more behind and then they just fall.

We take our education reform notions and we funnel them into our nation’s most struggling high schools and middle schools and elementary schools; we send our Teach For Americans and our New Teacher Projects and our undergrad education majors into the trenches for years at a time to pump up students who will suddenly get to college and have no teacher by their side. And we cannot let that happen.

We cannot let that happen.

*Student’s name has been shortened to K. for privacy purposes.