I fell asleep during the SAT. My energy was running low by the second section of the test. I rarely had enough to eat and didn’t eat breakfast that day. I woke up after about 20 minutes and worked furiously to answer everything I could. Needless to say, my SAT score was unimpressive.
I grew up in Compton, California, and getting into college was my dream – one that could transform my life and my family’s legacy. No one in my circle of influence helped me navigate college entrance exam preparation. I wasn’t aware of free test prep resources. In fact, on the day I fell asleep during the SAT, I had no idea that other students had studied for the exam. Only later did I discover SAT prep books and classes.
Many people in my community saw college attendance as a dream too big for a kid from Compton. Schoolwork is secondary to survival, so most boys were just looking to make it to 18. My dreams could have easily been derailed by a low SAT score, or my father’s murder conviction, or my mother’s sexual assault while she was in the hospital for surgery, or by succumbing to the low expectations in my classrooms. Yet I ended up as a student-athlete playing football at Texas Christian University where I earned a degree in economics and met my wife.
Today, I’m a Rhodes Scholar and a graduate student at the University of Oxford in England, with aspirations to apply to doctoral programs and become a professor.
How does a kid get from Compton to Oxford? Our family struggled against hunger and deprivation, but my mom raised her three children to believe in their potential and the goodness of God. She reminded us, "We may live in the ‘hood, but that doesn’t mean the ‘hood has to live in us." My mother didn’t measure our worth by others’ standards, so I didn’t measure my potential by my performance on a college entrance exam. Some American students aren’t so fortunate.
It is possible to change a young person’s perspective, to teach him or her to dream, even in Compton.
Recent scandals have revealed that some wealthy parents are ruthlessly determined to see their child admitted to a prestigious university. Even though these families have the advantages of private education, tutors and test prep classes, they chose to employ bribery as well. Not only is this illegal ploy not possible for lower income families, it reflects a distinctly different valuing of education. Parents who are accused of cheating the system did so to secure the symbolic and social benefits an elite education. They view an Ivy League degree as an accessory to be acquired.
Meanwhile, families of limited means view higher education as an investment and one of the very few paths out of poverty. As a 17-year-old from a very humble background, I knew what a college education would mean for my family. It represented the possibility of breaking cycles of poverty and the potential to improve the world in my own individual way.
Caylin & Paola Moore at Oxford University
A low SAT score wasn’t the end of my story, and neither was poverty. I’ve met many students across our nation who are determined to stay in school despite hunger, danger and deprivation. Due to their environment, these young people master a range of life skills at an early age — positive responses to adversity, problem-solving, critical thinking, self-discipline and empathy. If university admissions officers could measure these skills alongside exam scores, they would admit and unleash a generation of world-changers.
The company that administers the SAT recently introduced a tool to offer a fuller picture of students who live in places like Compton. The "Environmental Context Dashboard" isn’t a silver bullet, but the hope is that admissions officers will view a student’s academic accomplishment in the context of where they live and learn. CEO David Coleman said, "Low scores should never be a veto on a student’s life." I agree. A student’s potential can’t be quantified by one test, one essay or one interview.
I wish I could simply say, "Look at my story, it’s possible, you can do it too, you have no excuse." However, the truth is more complicated: "Look at my story, it was nearly impossible to go from Compton to Oxford and beyond."
My dream would not have come true without heroic role models and mentors. My mother inspired me to excellence every day, and the Snoop football league helped me excel athletically while shielding me from gangs. Quality teachers who chose to teach in Compton, Carson, Rancho Palos Verdes and Watts encouraged my love of learning. Scholarship programs and universities opened doors I didn’t know existed. My dream was too big for one person.
It is possible to change a young person’s perspective, to teach him or her to dream, even in Compton. This is why I can’t go a single day without speaking life to the young people I mentor or meet on the streets. It’s why many Americans are calling for societal and educational corrections which will ensure more children get a shot at their dreams. I am the first Rhodes Scholar from Compton. I don’t expect to be the last.