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Month 15: no matter where you go, education is the root of social inequalities

For the past three months, I’ve been slaving away at graduate school applications. I’m applying to public administration programs, so writing my essays has been quite an enjoyable reflection time. One school asked me to send them a video describing something I’ll bring to the table. Here’s a tidbit of the photo-video essay I have yet to finish:

“Watts, Los Angeles: Latino and African American. Urban.

Masotsheni, South Africa. Zulu. Rural.

My AmeriCorps and Peace Corps communities look different, but they share so much.

My Watts students are three levels behind. They lack support due to gangs and addiction. 90 percent of my South African class cannot do the work. Many are orphans because of AIDS.

Most receive government grants. A majority are unemployed. The dropout and teen pregnancy rates are high. All are part of a vicious cycle of poverty.

I have a worldwide perspective on education disparity and its relation to a multitude of social ills.”

But something stays constant from urban America to rural Africa — all these kids don’t have access to equal education and their families to dignified work. The only major difference I’ve found between my service communities is HIV/AIDS prevalence in South Africa and gang violence and drug abuse in Watts.

From the onset, all of the kids I’ve served face a language barrier to achieving in school because of education policy and their home lives. Most of these kids are unmotivated – usually because the curriculum is too hard. Their parents are illiterate or don’t speak English, so it’s up to an older sibling – if available – to push these kids in school. Even if they are braced by the presence of an amazing educator, one cannot catch these kids up three or more grade levels. Some young students are the adult figures at home and care for their siblings. Others are orphans or are part of the foster care system. Many are bored because they don’t take interest in school – for the most part – and thus one reason why teenage pregnancy is high. If these kids dropout or can’t complete their secondary education, the door of opportunity for jobs, higher education and life outside of their communities slowly closes. Then, they’re sucked back into this perpetual cycle of poverty – without even realizing it, and our world stands still.

The ones that can make it are kids like that one kid – who understand what the importance of education is — because they have some outside influence in their lives. These kids are minorities. It shouldn’t be this way; a few cannot lead the next generation if all the rest of their peers are uneducated.

But then what happens to these kids who are motivated, who care, who are those refreshing anomalies? You know, after two years of service, I still don’t have an answer. Regardless of how intelligent these kids are, they may not get out because they need money to get out. If they don’t get financial aid at a university, employed, or something of that nature, what comes then?

Education goes hand-in-hand with poverty, but so does access to dignified work. BIG surprise – both my service communities lack in this department, too.

The municipality I live in now is 90 percent rural and all these establishments share Nquthu – a town that consists of one main street and one shopping plaza. Watts – my City Year service community – is a small chunk of Los Angeles that consists of one shopping plaza, a few schools and housing projects; large corporations steer clear of the area. Most fathers from my village live in cities like Johannesburg to find work, and many of my Watts student’s parents commuted up to two hours to get to work.

Contrary to belief, a secondary school diploma may not even be a ticket to that upward mobility train – especially in South Africa with the youth unemployment rate at a staggering 50+ percent. It’s a harsh reality, but a diploma is better than nothing. (Fun fact of the day: City Year South Africa has an inspiring model; most of the corps are matric graduates. They serve in the schools a few days a week then do job and vocational trainings at the main office in Johannesburg. They get an extra push from the program in the job market because of their new found skills and professional experience. President Clinton brought City Year to South Africa partially to combat this youth unemployment statistic. Neat, huh?)

Two school years in urban and rural communities down. I wholeheartedly believe that education is currently one of the most important social issues in our world; it’s up to my generation to take a stab at it.

Next week is my last week of instruction. Hooray! I finished my first (and hopefully only year) flying solo in the classroom. I now know teaching isn’t in my future, but the Peace Corps opened up my eyes to what the future entails.

My goal is to work in an urban community and introduce a journalism and leadership enrichment program. USC Annenberg – my alma mater – has recently started an initiative called Reporter Corps. Reporter Corps trains selected youth from South and East LA how to report and give their underserved communities a voice. It’s fantastic, inspiring and everything in-between. I hope to work with this program, or get creative and do something similar for my career.

With all this said, I really admire all of my friends and acquaintances who teach and chose to make it their career. Many of my friends are starting student teaching this year or running their classrooms for the first time. The world is more just because of you. Your hours of dedication bring us one step closer to nixing poverty and all the social ills that relate. You all are powerful leaders of our generation!

Yours in service,
Small heartLiz

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