For young people, born decades after Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech, the world is full of opportunity.
It’s just a matter of getting to it, they said, when they were asked what in their experience still needs to be done to fulfill King’s dream.
“I just wish there was more support for [college] financing,” said Tamara Brown of Schenectady. “How am I supposed to start my future? It’s really sad that money’s the base of everything.”
With help from her mother, she’s going to Hudson Valley Community College. But some of her friends won’t be able to join her, she said, because they can’t afford it.
“Some people can’t get financing. What if you have zero credit? That’s out,” Brown said. “I wish people were a little more caring.”
Her mother said it’s because people don’t work together.
“Because we’re a melting pot, everyone wants to grab what they can get, and forget about everyone else. It’s always been a fight,” she said.
The issues of financial aid — and how to pay for four-year colleges without drowning in debt afterward — go far beyond racial divides. Occupy Wall Street youth made it a national issue as they protested the combination of staggering debt and a lack of jobs in the recession.
But black youth said college education is particularly important for them to break through entrenched poverty and reach the “vaults of opportunity” that King vividly described in his “I Have A Dream” speech.
There is hope. Some youth said they had encountered help: timely advice, useful information and good programs that helped them reach the education that they believe will make King’s dream of equality a reality.
Advice from mentors
For Dashun Lewis, a mentor made the difference.
He told his mentor that he planned to become a construction worker. His mentor didn’t precisely tell him that it was a bad idea, but he gave him advice.
“He told me not to use my body to make money, to use my brain,” Lewis said.
Now he’s attending Schenectady County Community College.
Locally, the Boys and Girls Clubs of Schenectady run a mentoring program that is constantly in need of more adults willing to mentor a teenager.
They have seen many Schenectady High School students blossom with the right mentor, program coordinator Emily Garvilla said.
One senior was matched with a mentor at the beginning of the 2011-2012 school year, when he was in danger of not graduating.
Garvilla matched him with a person who could help him improve his writing, preparing for essays on the Regents exams. He passed and graduated.
Another mentee was matched as a freshman, when she was shy and withdrawn.
This fall, Garvilla said, the girl tried out for the step dancing team.
“That’s something she wouldn’t have done last year,” she said, adding that she saw an impressive change.
“She spoke with much more self-confidence, she was animated,” Garvilla said.
Lewis is still in touch with his mentor as he goes through college. He’s thrilled with his classes at SCCC.
“I go to school with a whole bunch of races. We all have a chance,” he said. “Everyone’s getting the same type of books.”
And although financial aid can be intimidating, SCCC Financial Aid Director Brian McGarvey said low-income students can generally go to community college for free.
Poor students qualify for the federal Pell grant, with a maximum of $5,500 a year. They are also eligible for a $3,384 state grant every year.
That would more than cover SCCC’s tuition and fees — $3,746 a year — and the books as well. McGarvey said students should even have money left over for living expenses.
The trouble is the federal application form. McGarvey said many SCCC students run into problems the moment they begin, because it can only be filled out by a biological or adoptive parent.
If the student is being raised by others — an aunt, a grandparent — they must report themselves as “independent” for the purposes of the school grants.
“It can be a major source of frustration and discouragement,” McGarvey said. “The life circumstances — divorces, remarriages, nieces and nephews supported by family, raised by grandparents — it gets very difficult.”
The form won’t accept any of those options.
“Biological, adoptive or independent. That’s the only options we have,” McGarvey said.
He has counseled students to bring proof, on paper, of their circumstances — gathering testimony from high school guidance counselors, court records and other documents.
It’s complicated, but he makes it work.
“I can tell you right now we have hundreds of students here we’ve made these adjustments for,” he said.
But he said the rules could discourage students, preventing them from even trying to apply — and thus never getting to a counselor like him who could explain how to get federal aid.
Mixing of races
For students, some of the other issues raised by King’s “I Have A Dream” speech seemed like ancient history.
“It did get a lot better. There’s no segregated places anymore,” Lewis said.
His uncle added that at least in the inner cities, racism seems to be dying as races mix together.
“One of [King’s] dreams was white kids and black kids would not only be able to learn together but play together,” Eric Morman said. “He’s a skateboarder. It brings the black and white kids together.”
Morman added that he loved watching his nephew play — watching the races interact in an innocent, carefree way.
“It’s not ‘he’s black,’ ” Morman said with some awe. “It’s, ‘He’s a skateboarder.’ ”
But some white students said they still feel uncomfortable around those of different races.
In response, student Jacob Flores said they had to get out of their comfort zone.
Flores, a white student from Texas who now works at a dollar store near Hamilton Hill, said that job helped him begin to see all people for who they were — not for the color of their skin.
“You talk to people, you get to know them, and it opens your eyes,” he said. “You just find understanding.”
It convinced him that most people who are fearful or suspicious of others should simply try to spend time with them.
“I think we need to forget about our differences and look for common ground. The best thing to do is experience and interact with people you wouldn’t normally interact with,” Flores said.