Interviewer: Do you think your high school prepared you well for Penn?
KJ: [pause] No…[pause] Because, [pause] especially like the AP courses…they really weren’t, they really weren’t that hard on me, like if it, it was supposed to be like if – I look at it now, if it was supposed to be hard on me, like a college class, they should’ve probably, gave us more work, stayed on us more often and like, I wish I’d, I wish I’d stopped being like, procras – procrastinating, I wish I had stopped it then…‘cause I did the work, like how I did in high school, and, do the work how you did in high school, you come here, and you get a D…
KJ admitted that he has struggled a lot academically since he came to the University of Pennsylvania. He found the workload overwhelming and the standards much higher than he was used to. In his third year, he had a grade point average of 1.8 and was on academic probation.
Mikal also attended a predominately black and Latino high school close to his home on the outskirts of New York City. A senior and engineering major at the time of his interview, Mikal’s parents only recently moved out of his old neighborhood to a more integrated area (although still largely black) a few miles away. Mikal described his high school as being overcrowded and fights between students a regular occurrence.
… Classes were always packed. The students – put it like this, our high school had metal detectors, so like there were a lot of fights. In my experiences, I was always in the upper level classes so the teachers were pretty good.
Although he had a solid B average, Mikal felt that his high school education was no match to that of his private school classmates.
I mean, you know, when I came here I realized that a lot of things, that a lot of students learned - like it’s not even the material so much, it’s just the culture. Like a lot of students come from private schools, they have like discipline just planted into, like…well, that’s the impression I got. They’re just more driven than I was coming out of high school. I think that has a lot to do with just the culture and how people around me weren’t driven, so I wasn’t motivated to always do my best.
Coming from his high school where he had earned a perfect 4.0 in all his honors classes, Mikal was surprised by the intensity of the coursework and the University’s stringent grading standards.
Interviewer: Did you have any difficulties adjusting to college life?
Mikal: Probably just the amount of competition I saw in classes.
Interviewer: What do you mean by that?
Mikal: I mean, like I did very well in my standardized test scores. Obviously, I did very well in high school. And so I was quite confident coming in, to say the least, and while I was very confident, I still had a lot of bad habits coming from high school…Like procrastination and things like that.
Interviewer: So what happened when you came here?
Mikal: So I came here and I guess I tried to apply myself in much the same way I applied myself in high school. What I wasn’t expecting was the level of application from the other students as far as courses went.
Interviewer: So did that stress you out at all?
Mikal: Yeah, I mean it was certainly kind of a, I guess kind of a shock. Like it was good for me to experience that early on because it forced me to step up I guess and adjust…I wasn’t used to not seeing a 3 in front of my GPA, so I wasn’t happy at all.
For Troy, writing a term paper was his biggest hurdle after coming from his predominately black and Latino parochial school in New York City. Troy’s family lived in a tough inner city neighborhood where they struggled to make ends meet. Troy’s father insisted that Troy and his brother attend school outside the neighborhood to ensure them a better future.
Troy: …My father had, we actually started out in public school but because my brother started detouring, I don’t know, my father said
Interviewer: Getting in trouble?
Troy: Yeah, my father decided to sacrifice so I could get out of there so they sent us to Catholic school and from there it stayed through for high school.
Troy, however, admits that his Catholic high school did not ready him well enough for the University of Pennsylvania. He stated:
I couldn’t write a paper when I got here…I could not write a paper. And we had it in high school but I guess – I probably could but I couldn’t write it with ease as other students here could write it. Like my first time writing a five-page paper I was like, I was stressing over five pages and everybody else was like it was nothing. Like the students here that went to private schools like [names of private schools] high school was harder than college.
Nina ended up attending a majority black high school just for senior year. She had previously attended a predominately white private school but because of the relocation of mother’s job and parents’ divorce, Nina finished high school at the public school in the predominately black town that she moved to with her sister and mother. Her grade point average at her old school had been around 3.4 but shot up to 4.0 senior year. In her commentary, Nina compared her earlier private and public school experiences.
Interviewer: Do you think that that high school prepared you well for Penn?
Nina: Not really…I think my preparation came before that.
Interviewer: Really? What was so different about it?
Nina: I had a problem with the teachers there. It was a majority black school…but a lot of the teachers I found did not really sincerely care about the students and their future. It was especially indicative of like, well say like my senior honors class, my English class, the professor was like, oh, you guys are at the top of this school, you can get into [name of state universities], and I’m like, are you kidding me? That’s what he’s telling the students. Nobody, the only reason they heard of Penn is because it’s in Philly. No other Ivy League, they didn’t know anything about it, like the teachers wouldn’t even push them to strive for that. So it was really, like everything was mediocre, even the honors… one other student from my honors class came to Penn, and we were the only two people to go to an Ivy League out of the whole class.
KJ, Mikal, and Nina’s comments resonate with Massey et al.’s (2003) survey findings concerning the high school experiences of elite black college students. They found that black students from segregated schools were over 50% more likely to have experienced violence and lower-quality instruction than students at integrated schools (Massey et al. 2003: 106-107).