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During our research for “Falling Out of the Lead,” the third report in our Shattering Expectations series, we interviewed high-achieving, low-income students to better understand how their high schools prepared them for college. This blog post is the second in a four-part series focused on what we learned from students, the struggles they encountered, and the successes they realized. Here, we feature Ashley, the graduate of a charter high school in Houston, Texas.

From age 5, Ashley dreamed of going to Harvard. “I have no idea why,” she said. “Maybe I saw it on a show or something. … I went up to my mom and aunt one day and said I wanted to go to Harvard.” But, as a daughter of non-college-educated parents, her odds of ending up at any private four-year institution — let alone Harvard — were slim. She needed the adults around her to believe it was possible.

And most did, providing the instruction and support she needed to keep up with her more advantaged peers. But sometimes, Ashley picked up on subtle doubts. Once during high school, she heard about a study abroad program where she could develop her language skills. She wanted to go, but she knew pulling together the $5,000 required for tuition would be a struggle. When she asked for advice from a teacher, the response was discouraging: The teacher didn’t think it was possible.

Students internalize these messages about what is possible, ultimately creating — in their minds — what they can and cannot attain. And in our interviews with other high-achieving, low-income students, it was clear that these messages were sometimes based on assumptions about students’ families or communities. Students told us about counselors or teachers steering them toward non-selective, inexpensive postsecondary options, despite their high levels of achievement, because the educators (presumably with good intentions) assumed they wouldn’t be able to afford better options.

Perhaps these subtle messages contribute to national trends: Only 19 percent of high-achieving students from disadvantaged families ultimately enroll in a highly selective college, compared with nearly half of high-achieving students from advantaged families. Educators can combat these trends by reinforcing students’ college aspirations and helping them identify resources and solutions to potential barriers.

In Ashley’s case, she needed an adult who could help her find alternative means to pay for the study abroad program, rather than dismissing the idea outright. “We need teachers telling students they can do it,” she says. Fortunately, the support came from her mother, who independently fundraised $5,000 in the month before the tuition was due.

Ashley recognizes the sacrifices her mother made for her throughout her life. “Even at her worst, she has always focused on me,” Ashley said. But she also realizes that many students don’t hear the positive messages that her mother consistently emphasized. “What holds back a lot of students is people tell them ‘No,’” she says.

For Ashley, her mother’s belief and advocacy helped her realize her dream. She is now a first-generation college freshman … at Harvard.

Stay tuned next week when we talk to Gregory, who started high school with remarkable accomplishments but felt lost in a school with a hands-off approach to support.

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