Graduation marks an important chance for seniors to define themselves. Students come to Yale with a suitcase full of values, experiences, questions and ambitions. The people they meet, the clubs they join and the books they read tell volumes about who they are and who they hope to be. Now, as senior year draws to an end, they gather their majors, their extracurriculars, their best conversations, their deepest passions and loftiest dreams, and they pack them back into that suitcase to go somewhere. But where? How will they define themselves? When you bump into your high school English teacher — the one who always told you that you would change the world — what will you tell him you’re doing after Yale?
Tell him you’re going to address issues of inequity within this country through a program like Americorps, City Year or Teach For America. We live in a country beset by poverty and inequality, and this work will help you realize your grand ambition for making the world a better place by helping you understand the problems our country faces. You’ll get not just an intellectual concept of the problem, but palpable, firsthand interaction with the texture and scope of that problem.
Children who grow up in poor neighborhoods are still seven times less likely to graduate from college than middle-class kids. That is the problem. Education was meant to be the equalizer; instead, it continues to exacerbate divisions of race and class. The doors to higher education and career success should be open to all, but as long as poor kids do not receive the same education and resources as other students, they will remain woefully unprepared to compete in any of those arenas. Without that preparation, the promise of American equal opportunity is no better than the right to vote during Jim Crow: It is power on paper, but powerless in practice.
It will take many different skills and approaches to solve this. Some will choose education or law, policy or medicine, activism or art. A problem this large can never be solved by one sector alone. Address inequity firsthand, and it will prepare you for the great things that teacher told you you’d do. Tell him you need to do that because you need to see up close the way the great vehicle of American opportunity is mired in mud and sand. Only then will you know exactly where to put your shoulder, exactly where your particular set of skills and interests can best be utilized.
This career path offers unexpected versatility. I participated in Teach For America, and since then I have written a book, co-founded a national educational nonprofit, practiced law, been the principal of three high schools and made policy for a U.S. Senate campaign. Of the graduates I know who pursued service programs, two have opened schools of their own (one of which is the highest-performing middle school in Harlem), one is a midwife to low-income families, several practice public interest law and medicine, one is a social worker, two founded the Mississippi Freedom School, one teaches math in Mississippi, one founded a Teach For America site on South Dakota’s Indian reservations, one runs a group home for pregnant teens. My fellow graduates are already CEOs and school board members, legislators and school leaders, professors and policymakers. But the decisions we make and the impact we have are based on our experience in communities of poverty. We have determined exactly how we can best apply our skills to build a deep and enduring American equality.
In Thomas Paine’s words, “That which we obtain too cheaply we esteem too lightly.” Despite all the intellectual and social challenges, college is a safe place for many of us. College allows us to engage our minds, peers, and professors in discussions about the world’s faults and fallacies; it invites us to reflect on what history has given us and incites us to dream about what we might give history. Hard problems are hard for a reason: If there were an easy solution to poverty, we would have eradicated it by now; if there were an easy solution to global warming, we would have discovered it by now; if there were a quick fix to racism, we would have stopped it by now.
Large scale social change is enormously difficult. It requires aligning passion and politics, leadership and organizing, business and the academy all toward the same common goal. That challenge is enormous, but people with vision and leadership are built for enormous challenges. For four years, you have been leaders in waiting, chosen for your acumen but not yet confirmed by your actions. Long before we arrived at Yale, friends and family told us that the world needs people like us. It needs us because we have the vision to seek new solutions, the passion to find the path that will get us there, and the conviction to clear that path if necessary. As you graduate from Yale, you should gather your prodigious strengths and commit them to the ultimate cause: fulfilling a centuries-old dream of building a society where opportunity is the harvest of skill and struggle, not of class or color. Will it be difficult? Absolutely. Anything that isn’t doesn’t deserve you.
Michael Johnston ’97 LAW ’03 is a former columnist for the News.