Successful Despite...

By: Imani Harris


My first year of college was...a rough ride.

I had just graduated from my city’s number one school, and all of a sudden I was attending a top ten university. My life was a whirlwind, and I was taken aback by how quickly things happened.

I had applied to Northwestern University pretty late in the game, and didn’t put much thought into it after looking at their acceptance rate -- TWELVE PERCENT. I figured I wouldn’t get in, but saw no harm in trying, especially because my school had given me free application vouchers. But then, I did get in, and things took off from there. After a visit, some calls, and some VERY hefty scholarships, I decided I’d attend the school. 

Nothing could have prepared me for my first year though. 

You see, I’ve always been told I was a smart girl. People in my neighborhood knew me as “the girl with the book,” and I was often called weird by my friends because I liked to learn. I was always the teacher’s pet, and all of my teachers promised me I’d do great things in life. So walking into Northwestern, I was pretty confident that I’d do a great job, and have a good time in the process. I knew it would be hard, but hard was an understatement.

My first few weeks were a breeze; small assignments, long lectures, and short quizzes. It wasn’t easy, but it was manageable. But then, at just week five, it happened. I had my first round of midterms.

That may be scary for all college students, but I’m positive that nothing compares to the fear, anxiety, and overall disappointment I felt realizing that I hadn’t been prepared by my high school to be there. It was frustrating, but even more than that -- it was paralyzing. All of a sudden I felt stupid. While others could still party and have a good time, I locked myself in my room, crying, trying to study, and mostly praying. All the information thrown at me confused me, and I didn’t have the first clue how to study. In my high school, I never really had to try. I gained no study skills, and rarely had to think critically. But at Northwestern, critical thinking was the only way to pass.

So, I studied. Or at least tried to.

I was basically mindlessly doing quizlets, constantly rereading my textbooks and essays, and depending on our writing coaches for all my essay needs. I struggled to keep up with the pace and I consistently wanted to quit. It wasn’t fair to me that I had been so underprepared while everyone around me thrived because of the ways they had been set up for success. I would always think about how easily I succeeded in high school, and wish that I had been given the opportunity to go to a school that challenged me to actually learn--not just memorize for the sake of a test that’ll make the school look good. 

After my first round of midterms, which I did pretty average on, I realized that I would have to figure out a strategy. I had to teach myself how to study, learn my own learning style, and consistently focus on reading in between the lines to succeed. I ended my quarter off with pretty great grades, but only because of my hard work and the access to outside help that I had. Still, I couldn’t help but think -- what about those who don’t have what I do? Those who don’t have parents to call that can help them edit essays. Those who have to provide for their families and can’t focus solely on school. The ones who don’t have access to dedicated counselors and who may not have the skills to reach out for what they need. I literally went to the best school in Detroit and was underprepared to be there. What about those who go to schools that receive even less resources than mine?

It isn’t fair that the state denied Detroit students our right to literacy and quality education. And it isn’t our fault that we were placed into these predicaments. But regardless of who’s at fault, we constantly face the repercussions of a broken school system, and are rarely given the materials we need to succeed in college. We are almost always working twice as hard just to be average, and sometimes quitting feels like the only option--especially when professors chalk our struggles up to inability instead of inaccessibility. There has to be a way to support Detroit students better. 

Now, of course, I don’t speak for every Detroit student. But, hopefully I’m representing the thoughts of a few of us. I’ve thought of a few ways that Detroit’s students can better be supported. Unfortunately, I don’t have the funds to do these yet, but I hope that someone sees this and has the resources to make something happen. Because we’re struggling...and there are people who can help us.

1. Respect our teachers! 
a. One large reason why our learning is often disrupted is because of problems teachers face. Whether it’s trouble controlling huge classrooms or inability to teach because of the lack of resources, our teachers deserve quality learning environments. They make it happen, regardless, but imagine the result if all teachers had what they needed to teach all students.

2. Get actual college counselors into all of our schools!
a. Many of the college counselors in our schools play other roles that make them hard to access for actual college concerns. My own college counselor had so many students that I had to just find another for myself. I actually ended up basically writing my own letter of recommendation! The college time period is already frustrating, but doing it alone is almost impossible. We need college counselors to help us through the process.

3. Scholarship support
a. College is expensive, and while programs like the Detroit promise exist to remove the cost barriers, things like books, school supplies, room and board, and more can still pose a threat to our education. Many scholarships exist, but sometimes it’s about making them available to students who may not be aware. Those who start scholarships specifically for Detroit students should work to make them available to all who wish to go to college, not just graduates of Detroit’s magnet schools. 

4. A reality check
a. Someone has to have the important conversation with us. College is different. It’s nothing like high school, and it’s nothing like being in Detroit. There has to be a way to prepare students for the culture, and overall, shock of being in a new place that wasn’t created for us.

5. Acknowledge us
a. Sometimes it just helps to know that people see us. College is lonely, but it’s even worse to be alone with people you can’t relate to. Reach out to college students and check on them. Remind them of how proud you are. Send them care packages. Offer them support. Do whatever you have to do to keep them encouraged.

Now like I said before, these ideas are based on the support that I know I appreciated and/or prayed for during my first year in college. But above all, be open to hearing what each student says they need and working hard to provide it for them. Everyone’s journey is different, but one thing remains consistent about college students from Detroit’s public school district: we are almost always operating in spaces we were not prepared to be in. But we’ll always be Detroiters, and that means we’ll always learn how to thrive.


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