December 18, 2002: Perspective
Self-portrait by PUPP student Johanna Soto, a sophomore at Trenton Central High School.

Planting Ivy

“As I know from my own experience, we are giving these children a view of a very different world.”

By Miguel Centeno

Miguel Centeno is a professor of sociology and master of Wilson College. His latest book, Blood and Debt: State and Nation in Latin America, was published in March.

Betty writes poetry, plays the clarinet, loves to read, and always gets As. Juan is a brilliant mathematician who reads physics journals for fun and likes to play with matrices. Lauren can switch from lycée French to her native Creole without batting an eyelash. These high school students sound like typical candidates for admission to Princeton. But Betty’s father is on drugs, and she cannot afford basic medical care; Juan’s parents barely speak English; and Lauren has never visited the Princeton campus, just one mile away from her home. For them, any college is something of a stretch.

I’ve been there. More than two decades ago, my life was changed by a thick envelope from Yale. An immigrant at 10, I was luckier than most of the kids in my neighborhood; my mother sent me to a Catholic high school that beat a decent education into me, and someone took the time to tell me about the Ivies. Most of my friends did not go to college, and none went to a school like Yale.

Much of what I learned in my first year in New Haven had nothing to do with the classroom. Within an hour of being in my dorm room, I realized that there were very different ways of talking, dressing, and acting and that my way – 1970s urban style – wasn’t a popular one. I never had heard about most of the topics and places in the course catalog. Finding a way to fit in without abandoning who I was consumed a huge amount of energy, but I wouldn’t change the experience for anything in this world.

As a professor, I feel drawn to students who, before their arrival on the Dinky, did not know that squash is not just a vegetable (or as in my case, that it even was a vegetable). I wanted to see more of them, and I felt Princeton could do something about that. And so about two years ago, John Webb, director of Princeton’s Teacher Preparation Program, and I began to speak with high school educators from nearby school districts about what we might do to give smart, low-income kids a shot at attending universities like Princeton.

After a year of some tough and honest conversations, we got the endorsement of several local high schools and the university administration to begin the Princeton University Preparatory Program (PUPP) in the summer of 2001. Richard Carter, who had spent his career in the Trenton public schools, joined us as the director. Our program offers students, all from low-income families, the kind of intellectual and cultural experiences usually available only to children from wealthier homes, which not only increases their prospects for gaining admission to the best universities, but provides a foundation that should enable them to succeed once they are there.

Each year, we invite two dozen ninth-graders from three local high schools, chosen on the basis of their academic potential, to participate in an intensive three-year program that raises their academic sights. Each summer during high school, the students spend six weeks on Princeton’s campus, taking courses and interacting with university faculty and students. The curriculum emphasizes reading and writing, and introduces them to higher-level mathematics, laboratory sciences, and fine arts. The program pays all expenses with support from the university, and participating students receive a stipend to make up partly for lost summer earnings. PUPP also provides tutoring and mentoring during the academic year in the students’ high schools.

How is it working? The original 23 PUPP students from 2001 all returned for a second summer of early dawn bus rides and late-night assignments. For the summer of 2002, PUPP recruited a new group of 21 ninth-graders, and we are getting ready to recruit a third group. Although some have little access to Advanced Placement courses and other high school challenges that are routine in upper-income schools, our students catch up once they are given the chance.

We realize that PUPP is a gift with thorns. As I know from my own experience at Yale, we are giving these children a view of a world that is very different than the one they have lived in. We hear whispers of their concerns. That they feel intimidated on one hand, and guilty on the other. That they may not be able to cross the huge barrier that separates their families from Nassau Hall – and that they may not even want to. That they will have different relationships with friends and siblings who don’t share this opportunity.

I always have thought that in the pursuit of truth, universities needed to confront the very real and concrete implications and manifestations of what they found. Despite decades of efforts to ensure equitable access to the best undergraduate education, our selective colleges have few students from the lower two-thirds of the income ladder, and even fewer from the bottom half. Competition for admission makes every advantage that wealthier parents can bestow ever more important. Yet it would do neither the universities nor the students any good if students unprepared to face the social and academic challenges of a place like Princeton were accepted here. Caught between betraying their commitment to the highest quality of scholarship and denying their historical responsibility as avenues of social mobility, many of the most selective schools have accepted the consequences of social inequities as beyond their control.

The standard line is that we at universities are interested in qualified low-income students, but that we cannot find them. For me, this passivity is not acceptable.

This year, we are preparing for the challenge of our first students’ entry into the 2003 college admissions race. Betty is thinking of whether Columbia or Yale better suits her interests; Juan has weekly conversations with some graduate students in physics; Lauren now feels at home on the campus. Might some of our students be among the first residents of Whitman College? We’re working to make sure that they are.



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