People always think they have you “figured out” by just observing simple, everyday things. They think they know what kind of person you are based on the way you dress, how you talk, how you look or where you come from. People generally look at those things and associate them with the stigma or stereotype that society says they belong to.
But if you know nothing about people except what is on the outside, what difference does a stereotype make? How can you judge them? How can you categorize people without knowing their story or their struggles? Everyone struggles, but everyone struggles differently and handles struggles differently.
Imagine that you are arrested for stealing a loaf of bread and meat — at age 6. You are detained in a juvenile detention center and then deposited in what you thought was some sort of camp, but was actually the foster care system. Imagine receiving this punishment for a desperate crime — you and your mother were driven to steal after spending three days unable to afford food.
At age 7, after a year in foster care, imagine feeling so alone and helpless you go to get jumped into a gang and are told the gang members are “the only family you have now.” Think about hearing the word “family” for the first time in over a year.
At age 8, you are arrested for armed robbery and spend 15 days in solitary confinement and another month in juvenile detention.
At age 9, your foster parents frequently verbally and physically abuse you. They tell you, “you will never see your mother again.”
At age 10, after a burglary went wrong, you witness your friend get shot in the back as you escape the scene.
At age 11, you are arrested for selling drugs and tried as an adult. You are charged with a felony and sent to prison for five days. After you are released, the case is ruled a mistrial because you are underage and cannot be tried as an adult for a drug offense. You are assigned to alternative school for two years.
At age 13, after spending time with four different families and in and out of group homes, your mother regains custody of you from the state. You finally move back with your mother, her new husband and their children. You now have a complete family, but one that you know nothing about. How would you feel?
At age 16, one of your best friends from school dies in a hit-and-run accident walking across the street trying to get home. You are beaten and thrown out of the gang. You spend the year dealing with death, violence and sickness, and almost flunk 11th grade.
But now, let’s imagine that some good things start to happen.
In senior year of high school, you are no longer part of a gang or selling drugs. You get your charges expunged and are given three years of probation, which allows you to attend college out of state. You make up the courses you had previously failed, including taking all AP classes. You get to school at 5 a.m. for basketball practice, and you start class at 7 a.m., an hour earlier than everyone else, to make up for the classes you failed. After school ends at 4 p.m., you prepare for the ACT and SAT and work on your college applications and essays, then you go to basketball practice. You don’t get home until 9 p.m., when you do homework and study. The next day, you wake up and do it all again.
Soon, your countless hours of hard work start to pay off. You receive scholarship offers for basketball. You do exceptionally well on the ACT and SAT, even though you took them each only one time. In one academic year, you raise your GPA from a 1.2 to a 3.7 and graduate 6th in your class. You are accepted to one of the top universities in the country with a full academic scholarship — all thanks to your committed teachers, a great college adviser, mentors and family members who encouraged you to apply to Georgetown University.
Attending this top university should have been the happy ending to your story, but instead you face stigma every day at your new school: because you’re poor, and you don’t sound or dress like you are educated; because you are the first in your family to go to college; because you come from a dangerous city and you witnessed terrible things. You were a criminal — and on top of that, you are black.
Imagine that you found a good group of friends who could sympathize and who had similar experiences, but still couldn’t fully relate because they’re not working multiple jobs. You’re working 20 to 30 hours a week on top of school to help your family because you know they need the money to survive back home. You struggle in school and realize that the educational system at home did not prepare you as well as it did your classmates.
Things are going so badly that you try to kill yourself. You spend a month in a mental health facility and take medical leave for a year to get better.
You do everything to get back into school, with the support of administrators, alumni mentors and the Georgetown Scholarship Program, which has been there for you since freshman year. You don’t quit, and you become confident in yourself. You know who you are, no matter what any stigma or stereotype or stranger says you are supposed to be. Imagine you are finally nearing graduation at Georgetown. Imagine how that moment feels.
Imagine graduating represents defeating every stigma and stereotype that is associated with you. Imagine how it will feel for your child and your family, who was always there for you, to see you walk across the stage and receive your diploma. And for those in your community who now see you growing, thriving and flourishing. Imagine that they will see someone who now has a totally different mindset, a different perspective and a different sense of what best benefits not only you, but also your child, your family and your community. Imagine that they will see someone who is true to their beliefs and views in spite of how others perceive them.
You figure out that this journey is more than an education — it is how you survive and thrive in a system that wants people like you to end up lost and forgotten.
Deshaun Rice is a junior in the College and a member of the Georgetown Scholarship Program. GSP offers support services to over 650 low-income and/or first-generation college students. Proud to Be GSP appears online every other Tuesday.