—by Cheryl Leung, Golden Apple Fellow—
The sun baked down on the parking lot as I walked across the asphalt, my suitcase trailing behind. I stepped through the door, into the blast of air conditioning, and basked in the crisp, cold air. I breathed a breath of contentment. I was “home”. Women from various STEM fields were scattered around the room, each one deeply committed to engaging girls in STEM fields . We would soon be joined by more middle school girls than the room could hold. We would spend a week together, filling the girls days and nights with the best possible STEM experiences that we could devise. As I stood there with the cold air blasting on my hot, sweaty face, I scanned the room for friends I had not seen since last summer’s camp and made note of the faces of new people who had joined us. I stood there soaking in the sense that “these are my people, this is exactly where I belong”.
What it means to have that sense of belonging has been trailing through my head all summer, like some sort of sticky spider web. It started in May at the Harvard Law School graduation ceremonies. Yes, ceremonies. Harvard Law School has multiple days of speeches and ceremonies to mark the occasion of one’s graduation. After so many years of hard work, I guess an extensive rite of passage is a fitting conclusion.
After hearing a quite interesting speech by Sally Yates, we were presented with what was for us the highlight of the festivities. Mark Wu, the winner of the faculty award given by the students of Harvard Law School, spoke. It was the most moving speech I have ever heard. The thing that stuck with me the most, though, was his story. He is the son of impoverished immigrants who came to make a better life for their children, They worked low-paying jobs and pushed the importance of education upon their children. The children worked hard in school and grew up fast in ways that are required of all immigrant children in such circumstances. They were the interface between the American educational system and their parents – translating documents, explaining paperwork, navigating the college application process largely on their own. It all paid off, though, when Mark Wu was admitted to Harvard as an undergraduate, or so they thought. Once he got there, it was more complicated. He didn’t feel like he belonged. He wondered if he was smart enough (even though he was doing well). He didn’t fit with the other students, he didn’t share their experiences and they did not share his. He felt very much alone. At the end of his first year, he went home and told his mother that he didn’t want to go back. Think about what that must have been like for this 19 year old kid. His parents had sacrificed everything to give him this opportunity. He had worked so hard to get there. Yet, he didn’t think he could go back. After taking a year off, he did go back and went on to achieve great success. What if he hadn’t gone back, though?
I keep pondering what this means for the students who walk down the halls of my school each day. This question weighs upon me. I teach at a school that most people would consider affluent What they don’t realize is that 30% of the population at my school is on free or reduced lunch. These kids walk down the halls with students who live in multi-million dollar homes. Some of them sit in my gifted math class. These kids are experiencing the same forces that Mark Wu experienced at Harvard but they are only 11 and 12 years old. I find myself wondering how best to give them a sense of belonging. They belong, but do they feel that they do? I try to create a sense of community in my class, but does it carry out into the halls and the cafeteria? Do they feel they belong in this space? Can they be successful if they don’t?
I want for them to feel about school the way that I feel when I arrive at camp. “These are my people. This is exactly where I belong.” Am I doing a good enough job? Are we doing a good enough job?