“Harvard is such a big goal. How did you do it?”
Can I be honest here? I used to hate that question. Not that it’s a bad question. It’s just that open-ended questions about my life often result in a response that starts as an enlightened monologue about determination and chutzpah and quickly devolves into a deliriously verbose soliloquy of existentialist proportions. See what I mean? How does anyone get into any school? I thought the answer was obvious. But, for good measure, I’d open my response with a contemplative pause and simultaneously tilt my head — partly to make it look like I’m searching for an answer, but mostly with the hope that I’d find a new way to produce an unvarnished version of the obvious. I applied. And when pressed by the listener for a more satisfying answer, nine times out of 10 I’d respond with a flippant, “The way you accomplish any goal. Set the goal and work at it until you achieve it.”
Yes, I am a grumpy cat.
But now, almost two years since the world learned that I was going to Harvard, and after being asked this question repeatedly by the media, in private Facebook messages from college hopefuls, and peers from my former life, I finally understand the question: how did someone like you, who was once described as an uneducated and destitute woman of Afro-Caribbean descent — who, statistically speaking, should not have made it to an Ivy League school — game the system so well that Harvard, the most prestigious university in the world, accepted you?
The scripted answer? I bet on myself, I embraced life’s detours and I never gave up. (Cue the Rocky music.)
The unscripted answer? You were simply misled by the statistics. I didn’t “game” the system. Given what you know about me now, it’s clear that the data never provided the complete picture of my abilities. And limiting one’s understanding of people like me to the labels and stereotypes imposed by institutions of authority — in my case, the education system — you were only exposed to a fraction of the picture.
In other words, you were lied to.
Accomplishing any goal depends largely on your world view. We see this idea reflected in the pithy quotes we share on Facebook or in inspirational greeting cards — “Fake it till you make it”; “She believed she could so she did”; “Believe you can and you’re halfway there.” But for non-traditional students like me, accomplishment is less about changing your worldview and more about changing how the world views you.
Let’s imagine, for example, that you were standing on an escalator. For those of us whose self-concept — that is, the way we view ourselves — is consistent with the way the world sees us, then accomplishing your goal is just a matter of patience and dedication until you reach the “top” (a.k.a. your goal). However, if the way you see yourself conflicts with the world’s idea of who you are, then achieving your goal requires more than patience and commitment on your way to the top. It also involves figuring out whether the escalator is the right way to reach the top at all.
Wait, what? So, some people can simply ride the escalator while other people have to build it before they can ride it?
Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying.
But that’s not fair!
No, it’s not fair or very much fun, but we can talk about fairness in education access at HEQCO’s conference on April 19–20. The point here is to illustrate what access looks like from the non-traditional perspective. The shock of this realization about escalator builders versus riders, combined with the unknown likelihood that you’ll actually achieve your goal, is enough to kill any person’s motivation to move forward. For 99% of us that’s where our dreams and goals end. For me, that’s where my Ivy League dream began.
Getting to Harvard required more than patience and commitment. It required imagination and a plan. I had to see myself there, at Harvard, and then build my escalator — only I built it with IKEA-like instructions, in the dark, and without that essential but deceptively elusive source of furniture assembly frustration — the Allen key. But I knew I’d figure it out. So, I bet on myself, embraced life’s detours and went for it. And while those around me thought they were watching an uneducated, poor woman of Afro-Caribbean descent build an escalator, what they were really watching was my transition into a self-taught engineer, project manager and architect of my ambition. But this story isn’t unique to me.
I have led and launched programs for hundreds of non-traditional students —young mothers, dropouts, newcomers, young men in conflict with the law, public-housing residents — and looked on as they too defied the stereotypes imposed on them by case workers, teachers, administrators and everyone in between. Like me, they learned to build an escalator. And like me, they became the architects of their ambition. This is the story of non-traditional students across Ontario.
It is also how people like me get into places like Harvard.
Toni Morgan is a fellow at the Harvard Innovation Lab and leadership fellow at Harvard University.