In 2007, The New York Times published an article entitled “Elite Colleges Open New Door to Low-Income Youths,” which featured a then graduating Amherst College senior named Anthony Abraham Jack. Sharing his story with the Times, Tony narrated his experiences as a low-income student from Miami, who was raised by a single mother earning less than $30,000 a year, and the opportunities extended to him at Amherst by their generous financial aid policies.
Fast-forward nine years later, and Tony is graduating yet again--this time, with a PhD in Sociology from Harvard University, where he was also an Associate Doctoral Fellow in the Multidisciplinary Program in Inequality & Social Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. Thankfully, this most recent graduation does not mean that his time at Harvard is done. Tony was recently elected a Junior Fellow at the prestigious Harvard Society of Fellows. He has also accepted an offer to be an Assistant Professor of Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education where he will also serve as well as the Shutzer Assistant Professor at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.
Tony’s research focuses on the experiences of low-income undergraduates and the factors that help or hinder their success and has already begun shaping national conversations around access to higher education. His research has been highlighted in The New York Times (feature and op-ed), The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, and a host of other news outlets. He is a 2015 National Academy of Education/Spencer Foundation Dissertation Fellow, and the National Center for Institutional Diversity at the University of Michigan named him a 2016 Emerging Diversity Scholar. In addition to these academic contributions, he has been a loving resident tutor at Mather House for the past 7 years, known amongst his students for his bellowing laugh and warm presence.
Below is HAEd’s special interview with Tony Jack.
How did you get interested in the work that you’re doing?
I was a Head Start kid, then I went to public school all the way until 11th grade. In 12th grade, I transferred to a private school. This was the first time I saw the drastic differences in resources and support between public and private schools. At this time, though, I didn’t frame my observations into a research perspective. Then, when I got to Amherst for college, one of the first questions I asked myself was: “Where are all the poor black people?” It seemed everyone had gone to boarding school or had done study abroad. I kept asking myself: “Am I really the only poor black person here?” The answer was no. I soon discovered that a lot of my friends participated in Prep for Prep, A Better Chance, and other similar programs that place lower-income students in boarding, day, and preparatory high schools as well as connected them with very affluent people.
When I came to Harvard for graduate school, I began reading the social science literature on the experiences of low-income students. Much of the literature said: “All low-income people have ‘X’ experience; all middle-class people have ‘Y’ experience.” What I was reading missed out on the people who I went to school with. In some respects, it was missing my own story as well.
What are the most important findings that have resulted from your research?
I explore how different exposure to inequality and poverty, racial and socioeconomic segregation, shape students’ everyday of students in college. That sparked the difference between the two groups that I call the “Privileged Poor” and “Doubly Disadvantaged.” The Privileged Poor are low-income students who attended private, resource-rich high schools and acquire cultural capital, while the Doubly Disadvantaged typically attended schools with a severe lack of resources.
These terms are purposefully loaded. The term “Privileged Poor” is kind of like “jumbo shrimp,” right? It’s got that oxymoronic quality to it intended to make the reader ask: how can one person both be privileged and poor? I really wanted people to think about what societal forces pulled those two terms together. These students are economically poor, but rich in cultural and social capital. It is not just about where you live, it’s also about where you socialize. When you think about the consequences of segregation, we must consider how it affects those who live it every day as compared to those who are physically removed from it for 9 of the 12 months of the year.
With respect to the Doubly Disadvantaged, I wanted to move the conversation away from emphasizing individual traits to shine a light on structural inequality--the fact that where you are born determines your access to so many important resources. One of my favorite quotes from James Ryan, the Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, says that “talent is evenly spread throughout the country, but opportunity is not.” It’s sad that you can walk into a hospital and know just by the zipcode what the odds are that the babies there are going to go to college, or how many are going to go to jail. That’s the world that we live in. America is so separate and so unequal that one’s life chances are so tied to where they are born. That doesn’t make sense.
What I’m showing is that two students who come from similar backgrounds are experiencing college so differently. Why? And what are colleges doing to magnify those differences? Because the whole story is not just differences between the middle class and the working class. There are differences between those who have access to a middle class way of life and those who do not. That’s how I’m trying to enter this mobility, urban poverty, inequality conversation.
Have your findings changed the way you view your own experiences as a member of the Privileged Poor?
Most definitely. I think about one particular memory: My Amherst alumni interview happened at a basketball game at my high school. It was homecourt advantage. This is not always the case for poor students; sometimes it is quite the opposite. Walking into a Starbucks or a law office in a part of town you and your family never go to for fear of standing out or begin harassed for an interview can put you even more on edge than the interview alone will. I always think about the fact that my Amherst interview was at a friend’s game. My research makes me think more critically about some of the privileges that I had.
What do you think it was about Amherst that helped you succeed there and can this be replicated at other colleges?
Amherst is about the people. You can change 90% of campus, but the memories are forever. The way in which you connect with people at Amherst is so amazing that I am sometimes afraid that it will be unique. It’s a magical place. That’s what mattered the most at Amherst--The opportunity to develop relationships that crossed generational lines, class lines, and racial lines.
So much is relationship-dependent. Colleges have to know that about themselves. If students’ experiences are relationship-dependent, then colleges can’t still let everything be organic. The institution has to make more of a concerted effort to reach out and forge those relationships so that students aren’t left behind.
What are the concrete policies and actions that you would like to result from this research?
The differences between the experiences of the Privileged Poor and Doubly Disadvantaged draw our attention to how differences in exposure to inequality and poverty shape students differently. That brings our attention to policy. How do we structure urban and rural education? The gap between private and public schools is unacceptable. We need more resources in our public schools, period. We expect teachers in urban public schools to be mentors, social workers, educators, and counselors all at once--that’s well beyond their job description. We need to be able to make sure that all teachers--not just those in private schools--are supported in ways that lets them invest in their students.
At college campuses, we have to stop taking things for granted. Even as we have become more and more diverse, we still operate on the assumption that our students come from relatively privileged backgrounds. That’s just fundamentally not true anymore. For example, the NYT op-ed I wrote focused on how not every student knows what office hours are and how to use them, but colleges operate as if all students do. I would love for professors to define what office hours are at the beginning of class so students don’t have to guess. Simple, but potentially powerful, intervention to increase sense of belonging in the classroom.
Where the Privileged Poor and Doubly Disadvantaged’s experiences align shows how class--money--still matters in college. Spring break is a perfect example. 1 out of every 7 Harvard students stays on campus during spring break. Yet, based on the antiquated assumption that everyone goes to the Bahamas or Europe for Spring Break, Harvard closes the dining halls. This is ridiculous. Many students resort to eating ramen and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for every meal. Some reducing the caloric intake by half, only eating a light breakfast and dinner. We don’t know how ten days of battling food insecurity and poorer eating affects undergraduates physically. Meanwhile, everyone else will come back to campus refreshed and relaxed from their vacation. It wasn’t until 2014 that Harvard opened its dining halls during spring break. 1,100 students ate. I would also tell you that without Rakesh Khurana, the current Dean of the College, this does not happen. He went on a limb to support an activist-oriented graduate student, because he cares deeply about the students. Rakesh goes to bat for students in a way that I haven’t seen before.
Has Harvard been receptive to your recommendations for better meeting the needs of low-income students?
Having the College open dining halls during spring break was huge. They also included special vouchers for students who stay over winter break. They additionally changed the policies for the Student Events Fund, which provides students on financial aid the ability to attend concerts and shows at Harvard for free, so that students do not have to enter through a separate line.
Harvard has been receptive. There were hurdles. There still are hurdles, but I also don’t think they would have fought so hard to keep me here if they weren’t willing to work on the issues. I don’t think they would have put the story on the front page of the university website if they didn’t want people to know that they were dedicated to improving the situation.
Was there anything you did in your stint as a Mather House tutor that may have helped forge better relationships and, in turn, a better environment for low-income students at Harvard?
I approached being a tutor as if I were at a small liberal arts college like Amherst. Harvard worries so much about being professional that people care about life after graduation too much. I, on the other hand, wanted to get to know what little things helped students through the day. What got them going? If a student invited me to a hockey game, I went to the hockey game. If a student invited me to water polo, women’s rugby, or things I haven’t even heard of, I would go. I wanted to know what put a smile on student’s face. I want to know people at their core--who are they as people? Yes, I am here to make sure people progress to graduation, but I fundamentally believe that we need to make sure our students graduate whole and healthy. You don’t do that by making sure they get an internship every summer and get a job--that’s just checking boxes. Whole and healthy means that when students reflect over their experience, they don’t want to cry.
In 2018 you’ll begin teaching as an Assistant Professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and as the Shutzer Assistant Professorship at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. What type of professor do you want to be?
I hope I’m a traditional academic in that I publish frequently and that I publish in top places. I hope to be a non-traditional academic in that I want to ensure that I always engage the public. I always want to be able to write, speak and engage with the populations that the academy likes to study but never wants to invite in. Whether that means you’re black, Latino, a woman, undocumented… I don’t ever want those demographics to become barriers to access one of my classes, or to you being my research assistant. I want to be a professor who is not just relatable, but one whose students feel comfortable talking to.
Among all your other offers, why did you choose to be a professor at Harvard?
One of the main reasons why I chose Harvard is that they gave me an opportunity to teach, work with, and learn from people who care deeply about the populations that I care about, and who I know will go on to do work of meaning and value. I’m working with teachers, principals, counselors, and superintendents. I’m working with college administrators, deans, and presidents. I’m literally working with and teaching people who will be on the front lines with the students who I care deeply about. The students who are coming through HGSE are those who I will be able to have a dialogue with and share a mutual understanding about the populations we care deeply about.
I also must say, the faculty at HGSE is amazing. I get to work with people at the top of their craft from different disciplines. And I only have to go downstairs to the cafe in Gutman for a conversation. I visited a lot of places while on the job market and the energy at HGSE excited me the most.
What guidance do you have for educators who are making their classrooms more inclusive?
Try hard to make expectations explicit and to interrogate your own assumptions about what things people should know or how things should work based on class, gender and/or race. We can’t continue to operate in a “take it for granted” ethos in our classrooms, labs, and offices.
Now for some fun questions. What is something we wouldn’t learn about you from your CV?
I’m afraid of heights. I officiate weddings. I love Harry Potter.
What are some cool Harry Potter things you own?
I have Converse sneakers that are Harry Potter themed. I have the goblet set of all the houses. As part of a gift from HGSE, they gave me the Harry Potter treasure chest. Even my laptop cover has the Hogwarts crest on it. I actually listen to the Harry Potter audiobooks when I’m walking along the Charles River. When I say I’m a fan, I have even included Harry Potter quotes in my academic talks. Recently, I quoted Albus Dumbledore: “It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.”
Where do you see yourself in ten years?
Running from office hours to make it to my son or daughter’s game or recital on time.
Finally, what advice do you have for the graduating Class of 2016?
My advice to the Class of 2016 is to follow the advice that Langston Hughes once gave: “Hold fast to dreams, for if dreams die, life is a broken-winged bird that cannot fly. Hold fast to dreams, for when dreams go, life is a barren field, frozen with snow.”
This interview was conducted and transcribed by Michi Ferreol, HAEd's Marketing and Communications Director, who had the pleasure of having Tony as a Tutor in Mather House during her undergraduate years at Harvard College.