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My Road from Foster Youth to Gates Cambridge Scholar

Caroline James (Greater New Orleans-Mississippi Delta '12) overcame a variety of barriers to earn a coveted Gates Cambridge Scholarship. Read why talent alone was not enough to get her there.

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Friday, April 7, 2017

Today, I’m celebrating.

 

I’m both the first woman and the first African American from the University of Alabama to become a Gates Cambridge Scholar, one of the most prestigious scholarships in the world. To be counted among gifted intellectuals and promising leaders is an honor. However, this occurrence is not by design; in fact, I almost slipped through the cracks.

Three words best characterize my childhood in Montgomery, Alabama: abuse, poverty, and the drug addiction around me. I spent my formative years in between shelters and failing schools. Eventually, through my own efforts, I became a ward of the state. When one considers that less than 10 percent of foster youth graduate college, it’s clear that my potential life outcomes were bleak.

In actuality, the deck remained stacked against me as I navigated a system that privileges whiteness while I was black, wealth while I was indigent, education while I was inconsistently in school, males while I was female, and traditional family structures while I was parentless. Of course, this is all without mentioning the complex trauma I experienced during this period.

Despite these obstacles, I made it to the University of Alabama, where I excelled both in academics and leadership. My achievements and life story caught CNN’s attention; the network profiled me as a foster youth who had beaten the odds. From that point forward, I have fielded the same question repeatedly:

“How did you overcome all of this?”

Before I joined Teach For America, my answer was something along the lines of, “I worked really hard.”

Though not entirely false, my response was unacceptable and damaging; it perpetuated the belief that masses of youth who face systems of oppression need only increase their effort to find success. Such a reply suggests the underlying message that these systems aren’t problematic, but rather, it’s solely communities that need to change. These sneaky mindsets are simply untrue.

Yes, I’m talented and gifted. However, I’m also very lucky that people built villages of support around me to sustain me in times when the structures in place would have consumed me.

For instance, in my first semester at the University of Alabama, I found myself in the grips of an extraordinary financial crisis. UA staff members rallied around me. One dean went so far as to buy my books and meal plan. Secret donors placed money into my student account to help pay for tuition. In the classroom, excellent professors helped me grow academically. Without such intensive support, I would not be a Gates Cambridge scholar today. While talent plays a role in success for marginalized youth, it’s a combination of talent and support that allows one to rise above an unjust system.

Joining TFA further changed my life. As a fifth grade teacher at Success Preparatory Academy in New Orleans (which was founded by fellow TFA alum Niloy Gangopadhyay (Bay Area '02)), I had the opportunity to partner with students and their families in an authentic way; this time, I served to support them. Being an educator gave me the responsibility and groundwork to interrogate my own beliefs. I began to realize that, while shared identity is helpful and important, it does not automatically prepare you to work with marginalized youth.

Just like my students, my childhood gave me strengths and perspectives that uniquely prepared me to lead in the social justice movement. Ultimately, my classroom was built from the realization that my students were already leaders; my job was to use curriculum and classroom culture to help them illuminate their pre-existing excellence. Everything I learned was a gift I owe to my students and their parents. I am honored that our work was nationally highlighted when I won the Sue Lehmann Excellence in Teaching Award.

At Cambridge, I will be studying education and school change. In marginalized communities, education is often simply a reflection of larger systemic inequities. If education is to be the great equalizer, it must be tailored, led, and informed by the needs, voices, interests, and values of the population it serves.

Through my scholarship, I will study practical ways to democratize education at the classroom, school, and policy levels. Based on what I’ve witnessed from my dual perspectives as a student and educator, I firmly believe that the achievement gap cannot be closed without the voices and leadership of those who find themselves trapped within it.

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