Senior Lecturer in Education Patrick Alexander shared an account about his research trip to a school in New York with the Oxford Mail.
Picture a 17 year-old girl who was shot in the head at a Freshman party, now wheelchair-bound, struggling to graduate. A young Latino man with ‘Game Over’ tattooed on his eyelids, leaving his gang affiliations behind to focus on schooling. A hard-working, smiling, first generation, migrant teen from Ghana, on his way with a full scholarship to a prestigious, private American university. Middle class kids from relatively stable families pursuing a well-known but increasingly fragile version of the American Dream that leads from college to job satisfaction and security in the future. Picture an immense, castle-like structure in The Bronx where these people exist together, carving out aspirations and imaginings of their distinct but interconnected futures amidst the pulsing, chaotic, inspiring, roaring mechanism of New York City.
This is a list of just a few of the incredible individuals who I was fortunate enough to meet as part of my experience as a Fulbright Peabody Scholar conducting research into aspirations and schooling in New York City during the academic year 2014-2015. I wanted to ask high school seniors what they wanted to be when they grew up, and then unravel the complex set of sociological factors that led them to aspire to that particular future. In short, I wanted to better understand what young people in contemporary British and American society consider to be the building blocks of a meaningful life and why they think this way. These are the issues at the heart of much political and popular conversation in the UK and the US.
In 2014/15 I spent several days each week capturing the everyday lives of seniors and their teachers at a school I call Bronx High School. I hoped to immerse myself in the everyday life of the school documenting mundane, cumulative, momentary articulations of ideas about aspirations and the future, mainly through observation, conversation and interviews. Fortunately for me, schools are inherently future-gazing spaces and this meant that every day at Bronx High School was a good day for exploring the future aspirations of young people.
Bronx High was home to a range of students, many of whom were much more familiar with the generational patterns of entrenched disadvantage in The Bronx than they were with the sparkling affluence of near-distant Manhattan. In reconciling their experiences of disadvantage with the powerful message of potential future success and happiness, many students would at once imagine a future as pro basketball players, rappers, lawyers, philanthropic business people or simply as college graduates, while also conveying their fear and frustration at the likelihood of much less opulent futures ahead. Some spoke of their aspirations for the future in keeping with a traditional pathway from hard work at school, to college and on to employment, wealth, and the happiness that comes with social and economic security. Others still has no clear vision of what the future would be like, but were on the way to college because that was their normative framework for navigating early adulthood.
In June 2014, as I attended the high school graduation ceremony for seniors at Bronx High (including some of those mentioned above), I had cause to reflect on the truly profound impact that my Fulbright experience had on me, both personally and professionally. I learned a lot from the gracious, welcoming high school seniors and teachers who allowed me into their lives during the school year. This was not only in terms of their particular future aspirations, but also in terms of developing a critical perspective on the concept of aspirations which is crucial when helping young people challenge and overcome certain barriers which stop them from achieving their future goals.
The article was published in the Oxford Mail on Wednesday 9 December and can be read on the Oxford Mail website. More research news and features from Oxford Brookes University can be found in the latest issue of Research Forum.
Patrick Alexander, Senior Lecturer in Education, Oxford Brookes University:
“I wanted to better understand what young people in contemporary British and American society consider to be the building blocks of a meaningful life and why they think this way.”