When we – we policy-makers, funders, non-profit CEOs, educational leaders, academics – when we discuss higher education inequity, we speak the language of numbers. Sincerely and passionately, we express the urgency of mission by spewing statistics. We say things like: Only 58% of low-income students enroll in two-and-four-year colleges after high school compared to 71% of their high-income peers. Or: While 67% of high-income students earn a college degree before they turn 26, only 22% of low-income students do the same. Our tone is convincing (well, sometimes) but our content is bloodless.
Sometimes, in brochures, on websites, on twitter feeds, or in an Instagram video story, we offer vignettes and visuals of students who overcame systemic sorting obstacles as they navigated their way to college and a fulfilling career. Here, we use the rather unconvincing language of anecdote – telling but still not showing. These “stories” garnish our statistics which, in the discourse of social entrepreneurs, still primarily do the heavy narrational lifting.
I’ve always thought that the arts, particularly film and literature since they both rely on narrative to express their ideas and themes, could better make the case about post-secondary inequity than data and anecdotes. The problem is, there are just not that many movies or novels about the struggle of first-generation students to make it to and through college. The films have been made about college access do powerfully express the drama and urgency of the individual students who populate our nation’s dismal education attainment results. Films like Juliane Dressner and Edwin Martinez’ "Personal Statement" (2018) and Jaye Fenderson’s "Unlikely" (2019) visually and emotionally help us understand what it is like to be a young person – filled to the brim with hopes, dreams and aspirations – who is nevertheless by dint of zip code ensnared by a system designed to thwart their every move to actualize themselves. Though not reviewed as such, I found Greta Gerwig’s "Ladybird" (2017) to be a great college access movie. The through-line of plot is the college application process and the film emotionally culminates with matriculation.
I had not encountered a novel that depicts as a part of its core plot and message the desperate college access drama of first-generation, low-income students until I read Xhenet Aliu’s "Brass" (Random House, 2018). One of the most talked about novels of last year, Aliu’s debut received rave reviews from The New York Times Book Review, O, The Oprah Magazine, and The New Yorker. I must admit that I read "Brass" not only because of these impressive reviews, but also because the novel takes place in Waterbury, CT, near where I had grown up. I spent a lot of time working at the Waterbury YMCA throughout my adolescence. The memories of that struggling factory town form part of my imaginative landscape, and I was curious to match the pictures hanging in the hallways of my mind with the author’s (and how they do match!). Aliu alternates twin stories of a mother, Elsie, and her daughter, Luljeta (Lu). Elsie, the daughter of a mill worker and a factory worker who dreamed of playing lead guitar, works as a waitress at a diner where she meets an Albanian line cook. They fall in love – of sorts – and have Lu. Elsie’s dream is to save enough money to buy a car and leave Waterbury, but that never happens. Lu continues, on her own and in her own way, to pursue her mother’s quest. The difference is that Lu’s escape “vehicle” is not a car but navigating the college application process.
From the very first page, Aliu establishes the theme of how the educational system, with its emphasis on sorting, testing, and tracking, thwarts hope. In a bit of exposition, we are told that Elsie’s sister, Greta, always had high test scores – much higher than Elsie’s – and so Greta, now a librarian in New York, was able to escape, at personal cost, to define herself anew.
In the opening sequences of the novel, we find Lu brooding over her early decision rejection from NYU even though she is ranked 4th in her high school class, just below the top three students whose parents are teachers. With this detail, Aliu begins to explore how the system sorts not just based on test scores but also on social capital and college knowledge. Speaking to herself and rejecting her mother’s suggestion to become a dental hygienist, Lu says: “Your aspirations were always higher than tartar scraper, yet you walked into the SAT testing session with no preparation other than a large-extra-light-and-sweet tumbler of Dunkin’ Donuts and 12 years of public schooling in a district in which the per-capita income is less than half of the cost of NYU’s annual tuition, idiotically believing that simply paying attention in twelve years of math and English classes was sufficient groundwork for the standardized test that would dictate the course of your future.”
At Thanksgiving, Greta returns to Waterbury for a fraught, holiday meal. To make conversation and to avoid other deeper issues, she asks about Lu’s college list. Lu tells her that she has applied to a Connecticut state college and NYU. Incredulous, Greta asks her where else she is applying.
Lu replies: “What do you mean, where else?”
Greta responds: “That’s it? Two schools.”
“A reach and a safety. That’s what the guidance counselor said to do.”
“'Yeah, a reach and safety. What’s wrong with that?' Your (Lu’s) mother asks, not rhetorically.”
A full college access argument then breaks out concerning the capacity of guidance counselors to offer sophisticated, personalized college counseling; the idea that everyone should go to college; the limitations and opportunities of community colleges; the cultural difficulties of working class students at elite colleges; how college lists are constructed by brand name, location and accessible transportation, not on personal and academic fit. The brilliance of Aliu’s conceit in this scene is that this college access talk reflects the emotional tensions in the family. We readers squirm in recognition of how the ostensible topics at a family gathering refract the deeper, unspoken issues that constitute the family drama. The scene is rendered even more depth because Elsie’s boyfriend is a community college instructor who just listens. One of the sweetest characters in the novel, Greta keeps on telling him not to be offended. Buddha-like, he smiles.
Nevertheless, we education and policy wonks can’t help but thrill to Aliu’s dramatization of our statistics and issues. She has expressed emotionally (and accurately) the nuances and complexities of the educational equity struggle, tightly binding it to family dynamics full of dashed hopes and dreams, anger and resentment, vulgarity, jealousy – and, always, love, deep, deep love. "Brass" teaches us that the college application process reveals the underlying emotional, spiritual, psychological, and economic challenges in the family. In other words, applying to college is a family drama – a theme not much discussed in policy circles, though it is just beginning to surface in ethnographic research on the actual cost of a college education.
In an afterward, Aliu explains that when your family does not speak English at home you adopt the “language of your peers” and if that language includes vulgarity, then you learn to speak a form of English full of profanity. At PeerForward, we ask: What if the language of your peers includes college knowledge. Might we then bridge social capital gaps though peer-to-peer discourse?
We loved this book so much we wanted to meet the author and learn from her how to pump some life into what we talk about when we talk about college access and success. Xhenet graciously and warmly agreed to sit down with us. With all the caveats of art for art’s sake, we ask if "Brass" could become a vehicle, returning to one of the novel’s core metaphors, to bring comfort and community to our Peer Leader teams and their classmates. PeerForward’s Victoria Navarro, herself a first in her family to graduate college, spoke with Xhenet Aliu about life, the art of fiction, and her journey to college and beyond. It was a rich conversation touching on everything from the hidden costs of going to college to cycles of poverty to education as liberation to literature as an entrée to empathy to the meaning of love.