Recommended Reading: “A Question of Potential” by Dr. Marcia Y. Cantarella

A Question of Potential

By Marcia Y. Cantarella, PhD, Author, I CAN Finish College: The Overcome Any Obstacle and Get Your Degree Guide

Some years back, I took on the role as head of the Academic Achievement Program at NYU (AAP). The program was small and targeted Black and Hispanic students at the college. Although the goal of the program was student success, it was not then completely clear whether it was remedial or some other focus.  Giving it deeper thought, the question that came to me was, “Why would Black and Hispanic students who had gotten into NYU in the first place, be assumed to need remediation?” The idea implied that there was something about these students that needed to be fixed. That did not make any sense, and became the premise we decided to take on.

The positioning of AAP became the program to prove that Black and Hispanic students could thrive at a predominantly white institution. This became our direction, despite evidence of lower retention rates, and whatever current thinking happened to be. We decided we were going to disprove this self-fulfilling “prophesy”, and prove that these students could survive. And so we did.
We started with the fact that these were high potential students who could go the distance anywhere. Many from those early cohorts are now PhDs, MDs, JDs, social workers, business leaders and educators. We not only retained students, we showed that they could achieve at full potential. To do this, we had to take an approach that challenged a resistant system, pushed the envelope, and encouraged self-promotion.

At Princeton we identified excellent women and minority students who were rarely perceived by others, much less themselves, as being best in class. Our approach led them to win top honors as Rhodes, Marshall, and Fulbright Scholars, among others. As a part of the process, all students participated in meetings and discussions about their potential. They all started with the question – “what me, really?”, and then went on to unique successes throughout their academic and vocational careers.  Over and over, I have seen what can happen when students are told that they have got lots of potential. They begin to blossom. Infused with that shift in attitude which many have never experienced, they begin to walk taller and dream bigger. A student at Hunter, whose dreams were of being a physical therapist, was spotted by a professor who saw his potential in his lab work. That student has now completed his doctorate.

Unfortunately, there are other forces at work. Too often, media representations of people of color have overtly, subtly, and deeply denigrated the image of potential for success. This seemingly alien potential gets transported within, as otherwise talented young people reject the idea of their own promise. This is most painfully felt in addressing the loss of potential among marginalized black males.  Students in the Hunter College CUNY Black Male Initiative have spoken of the program as their safe space to be smart. In other settings, they cannot have the same conversations or envision their real dreams. In the communities they come from, the idea of having potential is swallowed up in the morass of economic, social, environmental and political challenges. Some say it is chipped away, by parents whose own aspirations have been shattered, unloving schools, or the resource starved and violent maze of real life survival.

Many of us, including Yvette Jackson, author of the Pedagogy of Confidence, believe that if you infuse students with a sense of confidence, a belief in themselves, and the notion that someone else believes in them too, they can and will do extraordinary things. These students can overcome the challenges they face in growing up and stretch towards their potential.  We have seen it over and over.  I saw the light shining in his eyes when a young black man was accepted into an honors program that he never envisioned for himself. He is brilliant but did not know how much, or that he belonged in a community of other brilliant people. He has now won a prestigious research grant. When you take action, and say heartfelt words—“you can do this. Let me show you how…,” miracles happen.

We all have potential far greater than most of us imagine. For some of us, the threshold of imagining is lower than for others. Our national crisis of educational performance is not about potential, it is truly a crisis of confidence.

A Question of Potential by Marcia Cantarella © March 2015