Higher Education

Q&A with a new college student: ‘I was never taught to be ready for college’

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For the second year in a row, Hispanics will be the largest minority on U.S. college campuses this fall, according to a new report by the Pew Hispanic Center in Washington, D.C. Exiel Sanchez, a 17-year-old from the Bronx, will be among them when he heads off to Onondaga Community College outside of Syracuse, N.Y., next week.

A nonprofit organization helped Exiel Sanchez (far left) finish high school, but he still feels unprepared for his first college classes next week. (Photo courtesy of The Brotherhood/Sister Sol.)

Although he is excited about starting classes, Sanchez says he also feels nervous and unprepared for college-level academics. He struggled in high school—failing classes and falling behind in credits—until his junior year, when he says a Harlem-based organization, Brotherhood/Sister Sol, which provides mentoring and other services to young people, helped him get on the right track.

Two million Hispanic students are now enrolled in college, or 16.5 percent of the overall college-student population. Like Sanchez, many aren’t ready when they arrive: A fifth of Hispanic students enrolled in four-year colleges, and nearly two-thirds at community colleges, must take remedial courses. Sanchez spoke to The Hechinger Report about what he thinks institutions should do to help students like himself start college on better footing.

Q: Tell me about your school experiences so far.

A: My family is from the Dominican Republic, and I grew up in the Bronx. I went to Mott Hall High School.* My high-school career was a challenge to me … I didn’t have a lot of guidance. I was never happy going to school.

I was coming to school one day, there would be a guy handing out newspapers, and there was an article that talked about money and what the city schools were receiving. And it talked about what schools in the suburbs get.

I was never able to take books home. This is what they did at my school: There would be an algebra class. It would be 40 books. But there would be three to four classes during the day, and those students would have that one book during that period, and we wouldn’t be able to take the books home because there were only 40 copies in the school.

These [suburban] schools were getting so much money, and these kids were getting to take their books home. They were getting triple. That’s something that blew my mind.

Do you feel ready to go to college?

No. I know that the education I was given in the New York public school system is an eighth-grade level education. It’s just unbelievable, because I want to do better for myself. I’ve been in school for 12 years and I’ve got an eighth-grade education. I have to take remedial classes in math. I’m not really worried … I’ll get it done. It just sucks that I was never taught to be ready for college.

What could your school, or the school district, have done differently?

My school could have taught me things earlier. There are things I learned last year that I should have learned my freshman year. There were no—what were those classes called? They’re special classes they give students?

AP [Advanced Placement] classes?

There were no AP classes in my school. In my school, math only went up to geometry. The only math we got in my school was algebra and geometry. There was just one teacher and 45 students.**

When I went to school, I didn’t feel like any of the teachers cared about me. They just got their money and went home. I always pictured high school where they helped you and tried to get you to college. My counselors never talked to me.

If you were going to fix your school, what’s one thing you would do?

I would change the amount of students in the class. It was chaos. It was so many students in one classroom, sometimes you wouldn’t hear what the teacher would be saying. There were so many kids who didn’t care about school.

What else would you tell education reformers to focus on?

I would change the teachers. The teachers we receive, it’s not that they’re not smart, but they’re not well-prepared to teach. When these teachers pursue teaching, they just grab them. They don’t train them.

I would have a budget for all the schools to be equal. And I would just want to feel welcomed in school, so people knew who I was, you know?

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. It was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University.

*This article has been corrected from an earlier version, which mistakenly referred to Mott Hall Bronx High School. Sanchez attended the original Mott Hall High School in Harlem. Mott Hall received a B on its most recent report card from the city.

**According to Mott Hall’s New York state report card, the average class size for 10th grade classes in core subjects ranges from 25 to 31.

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Sarah Garland

Sarah Garland is the executive editor of The Hechinger Report. She started out in journalism reporting on murders and mayhem in New York City for… See Archive

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