The San Jose Mercury News published an inspiring story this week about a teacher in San Jose who is raising funds to bring retired astronaut José Hernández to speak at her school. Voices College-Bound Academy, which a charter school, has three quarters of its students living in poverty. Many of these students are Latino and students who are first-generation college bound. It is no surprise that Hernández, the son of migrant farmworkers, would be a great speaker for their students.
One of the most important parts about bringing Hernández to the school is the exposure for the students. It is no secret that many of our young Latino students do not see themselves reflected in positions of power or success. You only need to look towards movies, television, video games, and advertising to see that this is true. It is disheartening to see our students internalize stereotypes about who they are and who they should be, but it happens.
This reminds me of a conversation I had with one of my students. She is doing a research project right now on how there are lower expectations in schools for Latino students and the effects that has on their identity. She told me a story about how, as she is growing up and a junior in high school, she needs to start thinking about what she wants to do after high school. She told me some of the career paths she thought about and discussed with her counselor: dental hygienist, medical assistant, veterinarian technician. Now, I’m not saying there is anything wrong with these professions per se, but I did ask why she wanted to do these things. She said that she enjoyed working with animals and enjoyed helping people. My next question was: Then why not be a dentist? Why not be a doctor? Why not be a vet?
Why do many of our students self-handicap? Where do they get the idea that they cannot be a doctor and set the bar lower for themselves? Jose Hernández became a astronaut for one reason: he believed he could be one. He applied 12 times before NASA accepted him into the program. He failed 11 times and still did not waver.
But we do not need to go far for inspiration. I hosted an event at Lincoln High School inviting women from the community to a panel discussion where they discussed being women in male-dominated fields. We had a professor of mathematics from Santa Clara University, a fire brigade chief, and an assistant district attorney. All women. Two of them had children at Lincoln.
We have plenty of success stories within our communities. This is something we need to nurture and build. Bring those adults, those role models, into our schools. Have students talk and interact with them about career options and ask questions to which they desperately need answers.
We need to make our students believe in themselves, and the first step is us believing in them, no matter who they are, what they look like, or what they have done. It might not seem like a lot, but telling your students you care about them, that they are in fact smart, and that you believe them can go a long way. When we ask our kindergartners what they want to be when the grow up, and they say, “I want to be an astronaut,” that answer should never have to change.