hope, with strings attached, might not really be hope at all

earlier this summer, i was invited back to the program where i have been a participant observer and teacher for the last two+ years to serve in a different capacity: as a guest speaker in a class about college. it was one of the rare times when i've readily discussed my role as a faculty member while at this organization, but was happy to share what insights i could about my own college experiences and as someone who contributes to admissions decisions at the graduate level. all of the participants in the class had been at the program for at least three months and had either already obtained their high school diplomas or had taken the GED test. most of the young men in the class were awaiting scores.

i went in prepared to engage the group in a discussion about what college meant to them, what role they saw it playing in their lives, and how they envisioned the path to achieving their higher education goals. i should note here, if i haven't done so already, that i am excited about the existence of this class within the context of a program for court-involved youth, for whom educational opportunities are significantly less accessible than they ought to be. (more on that another time)

our conversation humbled me in a way that i didn't expect to be humbled. i used a "college by the numbers" approach to initiating conversation and allowing time for their questions. on a large chart paper i wrote down prompts like, "age you entered school," "# of years you've spent attending formal education," "# of mentors you've had," etc. my goal was to point out the vast range of experiences each participant undoubtedly has already had that he might build upon when moving forward; i wanted them to see that they weren't starting at zero; they had/have a wealth of experiences to draw on when writing entrance essays, going on interviews, making plans for the future. as the program notes, they (and i) strove to create experiences of success while participants were enrolled in classes here. we moved through these exercises together and then the conversation took a turn. i asked them to consider the questions: "what kind of life do i want to lead? what will get me there?"

what resulted was a conversation laden with angst:
-how can i pursue my education when i keep getting stopped for just walking in my neighborhood?
- i can't just leave my family; my friends; my life
- i want freedom. how will going to college help me with that? how can i have freedom when everyone and everything around me won't let me have it?
- in here isn't the same as out there
- the people around me, the neverending police searches - they'll lead me straight to prison

- i want to lead a life that's free; a life of freedom.