Imagine a 100-m Olympic race, where the winner is decided based on how quickly an athlete can ‘reach’ the 100-m mark, but the athletes are allowed to use any types of equipment, drugs, or medium to ‘reach’ the target faster! You would not call this race fair. Would you?
But we have been doing just that in a different race: our education system—the foundation of a vibrant, prosperous society. How and why?
Our education system is good at recognizing students who perform well, but it can do a lot better for the students who may have limited educational exposure or have to overcome socioeconomic barriers. The system is not inclusive enough to give everyone a fair chance. We may be giving all an equal chance, but an equal chance is not always a fair chance. Put simply: we are selling one-size shoes to all and expect them to compete!
With greater disparity between rich and poor and increases in tuition or education related expense, it is becoming daunting for all to ‘afford’ a quality education. Consequently, we are preventing many creative students who are not given enough opportunity (or help) to fight the challenges imposed on them. With limited resources to address this pervasive problem, we are just perpetuating the problem.
All those students need a second chance.
I am fortunate to be given that second chance. I would not have been where I am now if my teachers had lost faith in me. My journey from being a farmer in India to becoming a student/scientist in top universities in the U.S. is a long one, but it is the journey that has not ended abruptly, at least not yet.
Many teachers have helped me, but Joe Ryan, a professor at the University of Colorado, is unique. He is special for me not because he was my Ph.D. advisor but because of his inclusive teaching and unwavering faith in students, even when some of those students are failing badly.
After I got admission into the Ph.D. program at the University of Colorado, I asked Joe why he gave me the opportunity when he could have taken another student with more achievements or educational exposure. He said this: “Sanjay, many students with NSF or EPA fellowship and great records apply for a Ph.D. position and show interest to work with me. I know they can get into any higher-ranked school, and most of them do. But there are other students, the silent majority, who also have the potential to do well but are most vulnerable to get lost if they are not given a timely opportunity. Our society cannot afford to lose them, so I am just trying to do my part.”
I never forget that day. Joe took the risk and gave me a chance. He believed in my potential when I was having doubt in my ability, and in doing so, he has taught me an important lesson for inclusive teaching: believe your instinct and give other a fair chance. I was lucky to have that opportunity, but I know many who are not so lucky. I try to do my part as a way to pay it forward. Many students are trying to have a better educational opportunity despite facing many adversities and challenges. I would not let them down. Would you?
I was lucky to have that opportunity, but I know that many may not have the same luck. I try to do my part as a way to pay it forward. Many students are trying to have a better educational opportunity despite facing many adversities and challenges. I would not let them down. Would you?
If not, give those students a second chance. They need you, and the society needs them.
The race to provide a fair opportunity for education for everyone is on. We are all in it. Together, we can do better!