COLUMN: Low-income backgrounds make adjusting to Norman difficult
Just the other day, I was walking by the South Oval when I saw a sign surround by about 20 desks. The sign read: “About 8 percent of students from low-income communities will graduate college by the time they turn 24.”
In comparison, 54 percent of individuals from upper-income households will achieve this same goal. That gap has been widening since the early 2000s. In those years the poor had a graduation rate of 5 percent, while the wealthy had a rate of 34 percent, according to CNN.com.
As I continued walking, there were people handing out bags as representatives of Teach for America. While I took one of their bags, a thought came to mind.
“I am the 8 percent,” I muttered halfway under my breath. The man handing me this small backpack said nothing. He smiled and moved on with his day. I was more taken aback that the look on his face said “there-is-no-way-this-girl-is-from-a-low-income-community” than his lack of response.
You see, I get this reaction all the time. Here in Oklahoma, I have managed to blend in well and adjust to my surroundings. When people really take the time to get to know me, however, they see that I’ve grown up in a place much different than this one.
During the last decade, the importance of college has been emphasized more and more everywhere. Yet, back in my hometown, the only ticket out of town was an athletic or academic scholarship. Otherwise, people would generally work their tails off to save enough money to go to the nearby community or four-year college.
Graduation rates have been increasing, but low-income communities still have problems with students earning their bachelor’s degree by the time they reach their mid twenties. What can we do about it?
For starters, according to the Urban Institute, the average low-income community is 30 percent Hispanic, 22 percent black and 6 percent other non-white groups. As of 2010, Norman was about 6 percent Hispanic, 5 percent black and 15 percent other non-white groups. Therefore, when students in low-income communities win athletic, academic or other scholarships and come to OU, there is a definite culture shock.
When I moved to Oklahoma, I was inundated by Nike shorts, Ralph Lauren Polo and Range Rovers. These were all things I had never seen or heard of back in my hometown. When I rapped along with certain songs, people were shocked, and I was left confused. My vocabulary had to adapt to my environment because some of the phrases I used left my newfound friends scratching their heads.
The lack of different cultures shocked me. Even the way people treated each other was something I had to acclimate to. I found myself frustrated. When I explained what OU was like to my friends back home, they almost didn’t believe it was so different.
Even though I had only moved three hours away from home, the culture was so unlike the one I had just graduated from. And no one really seemed to understand that. Students from communities like my own can get discouraged. That feeling of isolation could lead to problems that hinder a student from graduating before her 24th birthday.
On top of that, if a student encounters issues with their scholarships, things can turn even more sour. Students have the difficult, if not impossible, task of carrying the burden of paying for school without a support system. Juggling a job, class and any other stresses of life can wear any person down exponentially; doing all that while adjusting to a new culture can be extremely difficult.
Therefore, this is where the need to get involved comes in. Programs offered throughout the university cater to many different interests. For people who come from low-income communities, the only option might be to find people that have similar interests, and not necessarily similar backgrounds.
For those of you who hail from places more like Norman, reach out to students who might feel like fish out of water here. Perhaps, this could improve the graduation rate of those from impoverished communities.
Kimm Johnson is an environmental design and professional writing sophomore.