poor college students in Missouri struggle to succeed

Young adults who aspire to be the first in their families to finish college should be commended for their ambition. But if they lack role models who can give advice and show how success is possible, they’re at risk of following an aimless path that doesn’t match their goals and abilities.

This misfortune is clearly illustrated in the lives of four women from a poor area of rural south-central Missouri who found themselves at Missouri State University – West Plains, a regional campus of the Missouri State University system. (Disclosure: I’ve never been to Missouri and am not familiar with colleges there.) Student journalist Simina Mistreanu, a graduate student at the University of Missouri, chronicled their struggles to escape poverty.

Mistreanu’s article is part of The American Next, a Missouri School of Journalism project being completed in partnership with the Public Insight Network of American Public Media and the Columbia Missourian, a student-staffed news organization. The students she met dream of fulfilling jobs and middle-class comfort, but struggle to earn passing grades.

Mistreanu’s piece is long, but well-written and worth your time. Over email she answered some questions I had after reading it. Here is our exchange with a few edits:

RVM: What did these women tell you about the guidance, if any, they received before college about how to pursue their goals and avoid growing up to “depend on the government,” as Samantha put it? Heather talked about a track coach that took an interest in her education, for example.

SM: One of the things that impressed me about the girls, and I don’t know to what extent I was able to show that in my story, was how intelligent they were and how conscious of the struggles they were facing. They knew what they wanted to achieve, they had identified the obstacles to those goals and the solutions to overcome the obstacles — mainly, hard work and focus. The problem was that they didn’t know how to implement the solutions. And here, I think, they could have used more guidance.

Tacompsy had a difficult relationship with her parents and with the schools she attended. She felt that high school sets students for failure because it doesn’t teach them how to work hard. Samantha was very close to her family, but she didn’t necessarily perceive them as models for how to have a successful career. The people that were close to Katie expected her to figure out on her own what she wanted to do with her life. Heather was probably the luckiest of the four in this area because her track coach was dedicated to helping her go through college.

From the discussions I had with high school and college advisers, I understood that guidance is available to students in both cases. But whereas in high school, counselors will actively pursue students and families if they feel that something is going wrong, in college, students are expected to act more like adults and seek guidance themselves.

RVM: One of the commenters on this story wrote, “The moral of the story is that some young people shouldn’t go to college right away. It’s expected, it’s ‘normal’, it’s a lot of things, but it’s too easy to have fun, rather than making good grades, if one doesn’t have a specific goal and the path to get there.” What are your thoughts on this?

SM: It’s a tough question.

I guess it’s often hard for young people to find something they’re passionate about and decide on a career. In some cases, college is supposed to help with that — that’s probably why students take classes from various fields in their early years in college. On the other hand, if this search doesn’t turn out to be successful, students end up investing a lot of time and money into something of debatable value for them.

I think there’s no right answer to this question — it could work either way. This whole “life purpose search” is a huge endeavor and everybody has a part in it: the student, the family and the school.

RVM: One aspect of these students’ stories that really struck me was the apparent mismatch between some of their goals and the college they were attending. Tacompsy wants to attend beauty school, Heather wants to be a psychologist and Samantha aspires to be a paramedic and run a restaurant. From what I can tell, Missouri State-West Plains doesn’t offer programs in any of these subjects. Given this fact, why did these women choose to attend the West Plains campus?

SM: MSU-West Plains is an open admission college, which means it will take anyone who wants to enroll, regardless of their ACT scores. I think we need schools like that because they provide enormous opportunities to young people. And I know there are professors there dedicated to offering these opportunities.

The girls chose the school for various reasons. Tacompsy didn’t have enough money to attend beauty school, so she settled for something that she was not really interested in. Katie had wanted to enroll to MSU-Springfield, but her ACT scores were not good enough to get her accepted. Heather ended up in West Plains after attending two other colleges that didn’t work out very well. And Samantha had just moved to Missouri with her family, who were living in a town close to West Plains.

RVM: The women you spoke with, along with some of the experts you interviewed, referred to the fact that students from disadvantaged backgrounds often lack successful adults who serve as role models. What did the students tell you they need to be pushed on a path away from poverty, but aren’t getting?

SM: The girls mentioned the lack of strong positive examples in their lives – at least as far as having a successful career is concerned. That made the difference between them understanding what they needed to do in order to achieve their goals and knowing how to go about doing it. There was no one around them to show them how it’s done.

For me, personally, that was the biggest point of the story. When I got to know the girls a little better and figured out where the story was going, I hoped that I would be able to show the readers how important guidance and the presence of role models are to young people.

If there was anything that I hoped people would take away from the story, it was to understand why young people act in a way that sometimes seems careless and what are the obstacles they are facing. I hoped that readers would reflect on how their own circumstances were different, and maybe someday, with that in mind, become some young person’s mentor and role model.

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