I am a child of immigrants who came to the United States with next to nothing. When I was twelve, my father suffered from a stroke and has not been able to work since. My mom is now a certified assistant preschool teacher who is studying to become a lead teacher but has had to surmount incredible language and educational challenges to get to where she is today. I didn't speak a word of English when I started Kindergarten, stopped asking for presents after age eight, and felt embarrassed every time I had to use that brightly colored free lunch ticket at school.
Yet, unlike many people who grew up in poverty, I have been able to access a series of opportunities that include graduating from a top university, studying abroad in three different countries, and learning and honing skills that mean I will probably never be unemployed for very long. My opportunities have given me an unprecedented amount of freedom to do what I want with my time, money, and energy.
However, I do not want to be an example of someone who "made it" or who "pulled herself up by her bootstraps" because I think that severely undermines the idea that I was also lucky. I was lucky to be living in a city with safe, high-achieving public schools, surrounded by peers who knew about the SAT Subject Tests and AP classes when I had no clue. I was lucky to have a mom who would always read me bedtime stories. I was lucky to have had teachers who promoted me into a more challenging math class in middle school and encouraged me to participate in science competitions in high school.
I also realize now when I have not been as lucky. My parents aren't career professionals so I didn't understand how to navigate career transitions. I failed quite spectacularly a couple of times before I learned how to accurately evaluate company fit, align manager expectations, and work organizational politics. I didn't understand how to network until very recently. Furthermore, I fully expect to support my parents as they retire. When I save money, I don't save it only for myself, I save it so that my parents can live when my mom can no longer work.
I am a product of privilege. I am where I am today because my parents valued education, because I grew up in a safe neighborhood, and because I was surrounded by a community with an immense amount of social capital. I am also able bodied, heterosexual, a United States citizen and now speak English fluently. Yes, I worked hard, and yes, I was determined, and yes, I constantly sought to improve myself, but my fear is that by emphasizing the latter, we may fail to acknowledge that other people aren't as lucky. These people may be working just as hard, be just as determined, and be just as dedicated to constant improvement, but who just aren't as lucky as you or I were.
To put this in an educational context, the answer to closing the achievement gap is not to merely tell our children to work harder, to have grit, and to overcome, it is also to connect them with peers and mentors, engage their families, affirm their identities, provide adequate nutrition, build safe home environments, and make sure they are responding well to stress. It is advocating for our children, not to leave the communities they come from, but to come back and improve the environment they grew up in so that they can help other children from their communities flourish as well.
So, whatever your privileges and whatever your challenges, have empathy, call out others (including yourself) when they fail to acknowledge their own privilege, and work to extend privileges to other people. Let's be a nation that manufactures opportunities for others so that success stops being a function of luck and starts being a function of merely being human.
I am a product of privilege and you are, too.