Widgets Magazine


A different school, a different world

Over Thanksgiving break, I flew to Cambridge, Massachusetts to present a lecture based on my book, “What Every Science Student Should Know,” on making the most out of being a STEM major in college. The lecture was one of many classes being taught through the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Splash, a program that allows area high school students to attend weekend workshops and lectures given by college students, graduate students and community members.

Many of the students at my workshops attended some of the best public and private schools in the nation — Andover, Lawrenceville, Exeter, Stuyvesant, Brooklyn Tech. Throughout the lecture, the students were respectful and courteous and asked insightful questions. One even came up to me about an idea to treat tuberculosis and wanted my opinion on how to pitch the idea to principal investigators at the Ivy League university near where he lived.

At the conclusion of the program, I took the city bus to the diverse, industrial, working-class town near Boston to visit my sister for Thanksgiving. Although she had graduated from college only this year, she was responsible for teaching all the English-proficient eighth graders at her middle school. On Monday, she woke up at 5 a.m. and packed a ream of paper (which she had to pay for herself) so that she would be the first in line to use the jam-prone copier for her students’ worksheets.

Throughout the day, I noted many discrepancies from my own memories of attending middle school in a suburb of Seattle. One, more than 90 percent of my sister’s students were Hispanic or African American. Two, her students were paired with fellows who were paid to help moderate student behavior in class. Yet despite the presence of several adults, a couple of students acted out in each class, disrupting the classroom environment for others. Three, despite disruptions, my sister would continue to teach — shrugging off insults and curses aimed at her — for the benefit of the students who were paying attention while she and the fellows administered disciplinary actions as needed – two warnings, five minutes in time out and finally, detentions. Four, security roamed through the hallways and were frequently called to take students out of the classroom.

“Was our middle school anything like this?” I asked my sister. She shook her head.

It is much easier to work with students who already understand the importance of education. Those were the types of students whom I interacted with at MIT Splash, since they had parents or the independent foresight to sign up for the lottery that would allow them to attend Splash in the first place. For many of my students, going to college was a given, and in this self-selecting group, it was easy for me to fill their eager brains with information.

In contrast, my sister’s students were often from single-parent households or had parents working multiple jobs to support their family; many were unable to help their children with their work. Although their best chances of success would be through higher education, few students had academic role models within their families; they lacked readily available examples of how education could benefit them in the long run. It wasn’t surprising that a few students didn’t see the importance of their education.

While my sister and I were both interested in the topic of college readiness, I realized that she made more effort in a single day for her 80 students than I had in giving talks over the past year to hundreds of students.

I went to Boston to teach, but I found myself receiving a humbling lesson. It’s difficult to empathize with how little others have, since we make inferences based on our own lived experiences. Many of us at Stanford are the products of our families’ support, education from great to amazing schools and teachers who believed in our abilities to succeed. I had a limited understanding of how little some students and school systems have before seeing it for myself.

We build our accomplishments on a foundation featuring many aspects that were decided for us — our home country, the parents we were born to, the color of our skin, etc. In the spirit of the season, I urge everyone to reflect on some of the advantages that we have had in our own lives and how they shaped us to be the people that we are. I also urge individuals to move beyond the Stanford/Silicon Valley bubble when thinking about causes to support with our time and effort. It’s easy to volunteer on campus, but it takes additional effort to get to those who have less and need more assistance and resources. In all, don’t just go for the low hanging fruits — we have to be willing to stand on our toes, get out the ladder and reach out.


Contact Yoo Jung Kim at yoojkim ‘at’ stanford.edu.

About Yoo Jung Kim

Yoo Jung Kim is a medical student and a biweekly columnist for The Stanford Daily focusing on the intersection of science, medicine, and education. She is also the co-author of What Every Science Student Should Know (University of Chicago Press), a guidebook for students pursuing STEM majors. You can contact her at yoojkim 'at' stanford.edu with questions or comments.