The Last Word with Lawrence O'Donnell, 8/6/13, 10:34 PM ET

Low-income students reflect on time at Ivy League schools

Yale sophomore Travis Reginal and Harvard sophomore Justin Porter join MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell to discuss the challenges of being  low-income students at...

From Mississippi to the Ivy League: Two students reflect on their unique journeys

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Travis Reginal and Justin Porter of Jackson, Mississippi, have accomplished something extraordinary by any measure: they were accepted into Ivy League universities. Reginal wrapped up his freshman year at Yale in May; Porter did the same at Harvard. But in parallel pieces for The New York Times Sunday, the two young men wrote about why their success is stained with feelings of guilt.
“We jump over these hoops in high school. We take the required classes. We take the standardized tests. And they kind of put us on a trajectory,” said Porter on The Last Word Monday. “My entire question, what I was grappling with was, was my trajectory going in a direction that was opposite of that of the people who I love and have been around for my entire life?”
William B. Murrah High School, where Reginal and Porter got their secondary education, is 97% African American and 67% low income, according to the Times. As African-Americans from low income families, Reginal and Porter are no exceptions. Living within means has made them sensitive to the cost of higher education and all that comes with it. Reginal chose Yale courses with the least expensive textbooks; Porter considered deferring his acceptance for fear that his mother “would not have enough to eat, a safe place to live, loving company to listen to her stories.” His mother insisted otherwise.
This is another thing Porter and Reginal share: strong, single mothers emphatic about the importance of education. Porter’s mother prohibited television, rap music, even basketball–something Porter admits he resented a little–but this inspired him to spend free time in extracurriculars like the school paper (of which he was editor) and the National Honor Society (of which he was president). He even founded a speech and debate club which Reginal later joined.
Their mothers’ love, despite what pundits like Bill O’Reilly have said about the “disintegration of the African-American family,” is the vital ingredient to these two young men’s success. It’s also what made them hesitant to leave their homes in Mississippi for schools in the Northeast. In an affecting poem entitled “MotherFather,” Reginal remembers the feeling of arriving in a new world. To hear a full reading of the poem by Reginal himself, see the Last Word’s Rewrite clip below. Here’s an excerpt:

I remember being in the airport at the beginning of my freshman year in college,
Suitcase full of insecurities and doubts,
With a pocket full of literary tricks up my sleeve,
And a penchant for smiling my way through everything.
But that day gratitude didn’t have enough room in my chest.
Nothing could stop the levies in my eyes from breaking.
Tears that resembled waterfalls
Spelled your name on my cheeks and stained my plane tickets.
No, this feeling has to be more than love.
Because words will never be enough
To describe a woman whose laugh is like the first meal in a while for a starving child.

In their pieces, Reginal and Porter write about the unique hardships of getting into good schools for low-income African American youth. Reginal notes that many students may not even know what is required to be considered by an Ivy League institution. And the lack of support and preparation, he says, extends to the college campus. “People talked about resources for first-generation students. But during the school year I had no clue where those resources were,” Reginal writes. “I was lost navigating courses, and took classes I thought I could cope with but were not the best for the skills I wanted.”
The data bears out Reginal’s experience. A new study by Anthony Carnevale and Jeff Strohl from Georgetown University found that only 14% of students at the most competitive colleges and universities come from families who live below the median income. This percentage, The New York Times’ Richard Perez-Pena wrote last week, has not grown over more than two decades, “an indication that a generation of pledges to diversify has not amounted to much.”
In his piece, Porter cites another study by Stanford and Harvard from last year that found that even high-achieving students from low-income families mostly don’t apply to selective colleges–despite the aid that’s offered to them, and despite the fact that those who do apply are admitted (and graduate) at high rates.
Reginal finds the source of the problem in low expectations: “There appear to be two extremes: just getting by or being the rare gifted student,” he writes. ”Most don’t know what success looks like. Being at Yale has raised my awareness of the soft bigotry of elementary and high school teachers and administrators who expect no progress in their students.”
Both young men report feeling anxious, excited, inadequate, accomplished, and all the other emotions that average college students feel. But Reginal and Porter shoulder the extra burden of being unique cases among peers in their community. On The Last Word, Reginal recalled being in elementary school and seeing a film that mentioned Harvard and Yale, referring to it as “the epitome of the American Dream.” Since then, he never thought the dream was impossible.
“I was in such awe that if I worked hard I could get there,” he said.

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From Mississippi to the Ivy League: Two students reflect on their unique journeys

Updated