I am on the board of an organization called Calm Clarity founded by Due Quach. Due has just posted a letter about her time at Harvard as a severely underprivileged young Vietnamese immigrant. Due writes, “Getting into Harvard was like boarding a rocket ship out of the ghetto. It was also shell shock. The other scholarships kids at Harvard had previously attended private schools. I had never been around wealthy people before. Where I came from fear and violence was normal. My parents ran a takeout restaurant in Philadelphia, an area dominated by gangs.” She concludes, “At Harvard it didn’t take me long to become completely alienated.”
This amazing young woman went on to graduate but now several years later she still feels the shame and alienation of that period in her life and avoids alumni events. She has finally put it all into words with the hope that she will start a dialogue with Harvard to provide more support for students from low-income backgrounds.
As founder of Summer Search, a program that mixes up economic classes by sending low-income youth on scholarships to summer programs attended mostly by wealthy kids, I have learned the importance of talking about social capital. It is unhelpful and even cruel to throw young people into situations and educational opportunities without giving them the opportunity to talk about it means to them. So how do we broach the sensitive subject of how it might feel to go off on a trip with kids from different backgrounds? I say head on. Like any ‘charged’ subject the best way to treat it? Like a ‘ham sandwich!’
“So how do you think it will feel to spend a month on a trip with rich white kids? “ And then get ready to really listen. Contrary to today’s emphasis to avoid ‘trigger warnings’ and making people uncomfortable I think it is best to call it like it is. Having the chance to give voice to their fears has prepared our kids for successful trip experiences for 25 years. They also learn to talk about social and cultural capital like manners, speech, dress, ways of behaving, to not be afraid of people who are different and the importance of reaching out and forging connections to others.
As for Due she has received an outpouring of support from her peers at Harvard for her honest voice. Let’s see what Harvard as an institution will do in response!?