For the past six years I have had an opportunity to volunteer and form close bonds with the oldest group of students at PTM- the high school juniors and seniors through my work with the Calvin House and the SaLT program. I love this age group! I have had many opportunities to learn their hearts, their fears and their dreams.
I have watched them graduate from high school with hopes for college, only to see those hopes wither. Sometimes it is a little obstacle that happens over the summer after graduation and they never make it. I have seen several others who have enrolled in college for freshmen year only to become discouraged and drop out.
I admit I was feeling pretty good about things as they graduated from high school with college plans ahead. After all, that is one of our biggest goals as volunteers at PTM, right?
So, why are they not succeeding in college? They have opportunities for mentoring, extra tutoring, ACT prep, retreats, summer camp, bible studies and spiritual guidance, as much one-on-one time as PTM can provide for them, Calvin House, PTM youth leaders, family group leaders, Springbreak in the Marketplace, the high school summer jobs program, many prayers and much love from us all and more. I can remember thinking that we make this wonderful nest for them during the time they spend with us at PTM because we know when they leave many face a harsh reality when away.
What I have learned is that it all has to do with an understanding that generational poverty encompasses much more than a lack of finances. A huge part of this picture that affects our students is the lack of emotional resources and support systems that is also a part of generational poverty.
Emotional resources and support systems are the most important thing lacking for our youth in that very important time following graduation because they are what push a person towards persevering through the difficulities. Not giving up when things are tough and the persistence to stick with a situation and see it through is, at least, partially learned through role models. This is what I have seen as the leading factor that hinders our graduates once they leave PTM after high school graduation from accomplishing their goals that following year.
Navigating through the college admissions process alone is challenging for everyone. More often than not, our students are first generation college goers. The students, oftentimes basically left to themselves the summer after graduation to finish this process, do not know what to do, do not seek help because there is not encouragement from families to do so, and they give up. Often there is a need that is more pressing to earn income to help out their family. They end up getting a low paying job to help out in the short run instead of having guidance to see the big picture of how they can help themselves and their family in the long run. Additionally, college is not in the comfort zone for many of these students. It is really an unknown world. It is easier to give up and go with what is comfortable.
The students that do make it to college often find themselves struggling both academically and financially. For example, one former student (a bright star shining on this earth for sure with dreams to be a nurse) left for MTSU for her freshmen year, soon figured out that there was no public transportation in Murfreesboro to get her to a job and back, was broke and without transportation, struggling academically and wasn’t sure how to get help in her classes and lasted one semester- she came home at Christmas and got a job. I am glad to say she is planning to return to college this fall.
A couple of examples of bureaucracy that I helped our students navigate through that may be unique to the circumstances of the socioeconomic group of our PTM students:
- One student, upon graduation, had to figure out how to get a photo ID to get a summer job and register for college without a birth certificate or social security card or any other ID. His parents had never kept up with any of his identification. How do you prove who you are with nothing that says who you are? This involved figuring out which government agencies to go to, learning what a notary is, how to find one and then figuring out how to pay for notary services because, of course, he couldn’t get a job without a photo ID.
- Kiera, another PTM graduate and I, made five trips to the Department of Safety to get her photo ID in order to supply them with sufficient ID to prove her identity. Part of this process involved bringing two pieces of mail that they deemed acceptable to prove her residency- one business and one personal. She never received mail- her family moved often. One of our own PTM board members finally sent her a piece of mail on business letterhead to help us out! This all could have been avoided had her mom been willing to come and sign but she would not help.
Generational poverty and how it affects our students is a deeply rooted and complicated issue. Having adult mentors to guide our students through that key year following graduation can really make a difference in whether they follow through on achieving their dreams that we have prayed, hoped and worked to help them achieve in the years leading up to that point or essentially being absorbed back into the cycle that we were hoping to break. To me, from what I have experienced in working with the students, the “13th year” might be the most important and far-reaching one of all!