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Still Striving Where a College Degree is Rare

Graduation Caps

John Walker, flickr


You hear it a lot that in today is increasingly educated workforce, a Bachelor's degree isn't enough, and that you need a graduate degree to succeed. But that of course isn't true everywhere and to everyone. Like what about kids growing up in some of New York City's poorest neighborhoods?

Like East Tremont in the Bronx, home of the Crotona Achievement Program, where I work here every Saturday during the school year. It's a virtues-based after-school program for boys age 10 to 18 run out of a converted house in the South Bronx.

Christopher de Jesus is one of the high schoolers in the program. Like most other students at Crotona, he lives and goes to school in the Bronx. Chris describes his neighborhood as low-income, and in that neighborhood, "there's a lot of people who aren't really, I would say, 'college-ready.'"
Sadly, his story isn't an anomaly in the Bronx. According to a report by the Borough President's office, more than 40% of young people in the borough live below the poverty line. And only 18% of Bronx adults have a bachelors degree - compared to 35% statewide, and a full 59% just across the river in Manhattan.
These kids, or at least their parents, are trying to fight that. The students come here for a nearly 2-hour SAT class on Saturdays. Before they started for the day, I talked to Chris and four other high schoolers. Kelvin, a freshman, said a college degree would mean more in his neighborhood.
"I feel like people are gonna give you more respect," he said. "Becasue basically beating any type of statistic, other people are gonna look up to you."
And for Chris, a degree would be lot more than just a piece of paper.
"When it comes to growing up in an impoverished area, it's very important to try to succeed above all expectations," he said. "Besides becoming a symbol for others in your area, you also show other companies that you exceed beyond any expectations or limits that are set upon you."
Chris said his thinks his roots could help him get a college scholarship or a job.
But I didn't only talk to students. Andrew Starr, Crotona's Program Director, is very proud of the program's record, listing top schools graduates have gone to like Yale, Boston College, and Notre Dame.
Starr himself grew up in Denver and went to college in New York City at Fordham. But like many other young grads, it hasn't been a straight path from college to career. He graduated with a degree in Philosophy in 2007, then worked as an actor for five years before going back to Fordham for a Post-Bac.
Starr did that to try something new - he needed more undergrad courses to get into Med school. He is finally applying this year, and hopes to start classes in the Fall.
A bachelors degree alone wasn't enough for Starr to chase HIS dream. But he works in the Bronx, where educational attainment is more rare. So I asked him, if he thought feeling like you need an advanced degree is a problem only for the priveleged.
"Could be!" he said. "I told my stepdad the other day - I was working at a cardiovascular clinic before coming to Crotona. And I was complaining, "I'm making 12 bucks an hour, how do I even live off of that." And he kind of chuckled, "you know I have employees that make 10 dollars an hour and are supporting a family of four. So either you're not spending your money wisely, or you're expecting to much." And that's kinda surprising."
Starr thinks his restlessness could be a generational thing - with more young people wanting fulfulling jobs. But money, of course, is always an issue too - especially in the South Bronx where many families are facing the kind of low wages Starr mentioned.
So for the students at Crotona, like everywhere else, money is a part of the dream. 11th-grader Oni is planning to get an advanced degree. He said his brother told him that's how you get paid more
"And that's what inspired me. I want my parents to be proud of me. I want to achieve success and be better, be greater than they were at my age. And beat my brother. Cuz we're both competing," he said laughing.
Chris has grad school plans too. In his mind, he's not just competing against a brother, he's competing against everybody.
"A simple Bachelors is not worth as much as it once was because everyone's going to college. There are some schools with a 95% college acceptance rate. What are the chances of you getting accepted into a company if everybody already has a Bachelors? You gotta do something MORE than those other people."
So while a Bachelor's degree may be more impressive in the South Bronx than in other places, that makes a graduate degree an even BETTER goal to strive for.