Empathy Interview with Students at a college prep school

This thread will contain several interviews with students attending a college prep high school in Washington, DC area- Don Bosco Cristo Rey

Photo of Jeremy McDonald

Written by

Who I am:

 I am an educator working at a Catholic college prep school for low-income students in the Washington, DC area. My goal is to help build empathy around minority and low-income students fears, challenges, and thoughts about college.

Interview 1:

The first interview I am posting conducted with five young ladies currently sophomores and in the honors program. To call these young ladies bright and ambitious is an understatement. As you can hear in the interview, all of them are excited about the "opportunity" of college:
- freedom
- social opportunities (i.e., parties)
- "finding themselves."
- learning
All typical things any 14-year old college prep student would say.
At the same time, there was an intense fear of the cost and rejection from all these girls. While the fear of not getting into school is common, even among the most academically elite student (in the traditional sense-- of course). However, listen to these young ladies talk about the cost, the fear is not just getting students loans, it is a fear they may hurt their parents, they may hurt themselves. There is a distinct fear that all this work will lead them to where they are now, but with loads of debt.

Interview 2:

The second interview is with a junior college prep class. While none of the students are honor students, they are all very focused on going to college, and unlike the interview with the young ladies in the first interview, there is a lot more focus and knowledge about the process of going to college.
Like the first interview, they are very excited about the "idea" of college and talk about a lot of the positive aspects the sophomores do, a little bit more freely, too.
Also, our juniors also echoed the same fear in cost, but unlike the sophomores, you hear some of the students talk as if the deck is against them due to their economic situation. They feel as if they are required to do more to get to the same place as someone with better economic means.
Lastly, one of the most interesting points I heard was the fear many students had about their parents current immigration status would have on their FAFSA and scholarship process. As we think about empathy we need to understand this point.

Interview 3

I have one more interview to add-- this one with some of our young men in their Sophomore year. A couple of notes before we I get into my observations.
1st-- I am particularly close with this group, which is why this interview in some sense was the least productive-- you will hear a lot of laughter
2nd-- I hand picked these students and bribed them with pizza (full disclosure)
3rd-- not sure the deal with the picture

Like the other interviews, money was king. These students are scared about the cost of school. Ultimately, what I heard was a not so much fear of the sticker price, rather fear that all this work and money and what if they don't get a job, or what if they are still viewed as a "gang member,"criminal," or just not belonging. At one point one of the young men verbalized this very succinctly-- what if after all this I don't get a job. As I pondered the interview this afternoon it struck me in a way that I had not thought about before-- many of these students are being asked to work very hard to get into a college or university which cost more per year than their family earns in a year. At DBCR, our median family income is $34,000. How hard is it to find a school that cost more than that? This is a huge leap of faith for these kids, what if we asked every family to "risk" 4 years of their family income?

During the interview, I was a little shocked to hear two of the young men talk about their ambitious college goals given their academic reality (again, I know these students very well). As I reflected, this concept of low-income students needing to make a leap of faith kept coming back to me-- Yes these two young men WANT to go to a highly competitive school, but do they believe someone who looks like them and lives in their neighborhood can go? It is almost like they are options trader, I will bet on my future to go to a good college by going to a college prep school, but I will hedge my bet and not give up too much to get good grades, just in case this bet goes bad.

Which brings me to my final thought:

A couple of notes:
All the students know me personally as a teacher in their school. More than likely, this had an impact on some of the comments, particularly, those framing Don Bosco Cristo Rey in a good light.
Additionally, I did not attempt to correct any misunderstanding a student had, I wanted the Teachers Guild to not only hear what they thought but be able to see where any misunderstandings may be.

[Optional] Synthesize a little! In one sentence, describe what you learned from your empathy exercises or analogous research. (Ex: Good advisors make a difference.)

Fear of debt looms over promising students as many journey to be the first generation college students.


Join the conversation:

Photo of Charles Shryock, IV

Random, but I'm really struck by the incredible difference in college awareness that happens between 10th and 11th grade. Happens with many of my students too... Kind of amazing. I feel like this change often starts around the PSAT. 

Photo of Jeremy McDonald

I am so moved that my student's voice is having an impact-- no better gift to a teacher. 
I really enjoyed working on this. My only disappointment was not being able to conduct one more interview. I originally scheduled an interview with another school in our area that serves students from very wealthy families. I really wanted to get a sense of the difference between those with an understanding of college and extensive means to my students who lack both connection to college and the means to pay for it all. I am still hopefully, I can get the interview, even if it is part of the next phase. 
Again---  THANK YOU for your comments and listening to my students.

Photo of Charles Shryock, IV

And THANK YOU for diving in deep here. It has been such a gift to hear this discussion from the DBCR students, and they are going to help us design better solutions in this collaboration! 

Photo of Michael Schurr


Jumping on the band wagon, this post is AMAZING! Thank you for such an open and honest picture of what is at the heart of holding back so many bright, talented, brilliant young people from taking their education to the next level.

Photo of Jeremy McDonald

thank you so much for your comments-- it is such a pleasure to work with these students.

Photo of Brad Fiege

This is a great empathy piece and one that I plan on sharing with my sociology class who I have working on this challenge! I was a part of a design challenge in L.A. at a 9th grade college prep school and our student interviews shared the insight about the family tension for Latino girls to even think about leaving home for college instead of starting a family or supporting the current family.  This finical burden not only on the students but their family is a pattern emerging in many posts even with my own students when we talked  about the topic. Even though there are many options (scholarships or work programs) the debt burden is real. Possibly explaining this demographics interest in Sanders for president. Thanks for sharing! 

Photo of Jeremy McDonald

Brad Fiege my master thesis looked a little bit at that. What I found (almost 10 years ago) many Latinas went to college because they were told they couldn't and many Latinos did not go to college because they were told they couldn't. In addition,  I found similar issues about the idea of a Latina leaving home to better herself. A lot of issues around that. . . thanks for your comments and for sharing with your class-- I am touched my students voice is being spread so far. 

Photo of Donna Teuber

Hi Jeremy, Thank you so much for taking the time to get these students together and give them an opportunity to share their hopes and fears. The interview brings out many insights that we can use to come up with better supports for students. I heard fears over the cost, worries over the high expectations and many questions about the process. 

Photo of Jeremy McDonald

  Thank you, yes there are so many fears about cost-- and as my most recent update notes, we are not talking about a lot of money, we are talking about borrowing their parents yearly income or more each and every year they are in college. Society has not given these kids too much to have faith in. . .

Photo of Emma Scripps

Such a ridiculously good post Jeremy. Thanks for showin' the community what an empathy phase is all about! 

Photo of Jeremy McDonald

Thank you for your kind words!

Photo of Dan Ryder

Digging the efforts to bring voices we might otherwise not hear into this particular design challenge.  And love that we are getting to hear them in their own words.  Offers so much richness to the empathy phase here.

And I LOVE (see -- it's in caps so I love it even more than the other loving) that you didn't clear up any of their misconceptions.  Opens the door for other insights.

Photo of Jeremy McDonald

Thank you, I appreciate your comments and thoughts.