Paying it forward, that’s the reason behind Zechariah Banks’ hard work and his rationale for getting and maintaining good grades.
Banks, a freshman theatre performance student from Quincy, recalls the uncertainty he felt while applying to various colleges. His fears were allayed when Tallahassee Community College and Florida A&M University responded.
“They both offered me scholarships, but I chose to come to FAMU because it gave me a full scholarship,” said Banks, 19. And partly for that reason he maintains a 4.0 grade point average.
“In order to pay it back to FAMU, I keep my grades up,” he said. In his opinion, hard work is not an option.
“School is just a place…a learning environment, and I’m here for a purpose – to get an education,” Banks said. “After that, I can think about other things.”
He frequents the library at least four times a week to complete assignments.
I waste no time, I just get it done,” Banks added. He said his parents always tell him that in order to make it in life, he has to have an education. “Without that, you’re going nowhere,” he said.
There are others attending Florida A&M University who believe as Banks does – that school is supposed to be at the forefront of their lives. They do not apologize for the hard work they put in. But for a majority of black students, academic success is either not seen as a priority or is unattainable.
Low expectations mentality begins in childhood
In 1997, College Board, an organization designed to promote collegiate success, organized the National Task Force on Minority High Achievement. The task force was created “to study and make recommendations for addressing a crucial, if little known, national issue: the chronic shortage of African-American, Latino, and Native American students who achieve at very high levels academically.”
Dana Dennard, an adjunct psychology professor at FAMU, said this lack of black achievement is caused by societal inaction among other things.
“Complacency is a by-product of the materialization of the world,” Dennard said in an e-mail. “Very little is systematically done to help people think or have an orientation toward purpose in life or elevation of the soul. Rather there is a constant dose of everything to encourage consumerism. Consumers give energy and don’t have a desire to be producers.”
Because most people have low expectations of themselves, said Dennard, they shy away from any form of independence.
This is a trait, he believes, more than often begins at a young age and continues into adulthood.
Rohini Mankee, a senior actuarial science student from Trinidad, said she was not given the chance to fall into that trap.
Mankee learned at an early age that work mattered. Her mother enforced this belief.
“Growing up in a single-parent family with a strong mother, that’s what I had to look up to,” said Mankee, 20. “I was taught to make time for work. The same amount of time you take to party you can put toward your work.”
Mankee said she is driven by her mother’s high expectations. If she doesn’t meet them, she feels she is disappointing her mother.
Mankee said being involved in sports at a young age has also disciplined her and helps her to maintain a 3.8 GPA.
“I was a national swimmer and captain of the national girl’s water polo team and I did gymnastics,” the soon-to-be actuary said. “The swimming and water polo created mental strength. Anytime I wanted to give up, I could talk to myself and say, ‘No you have to do this.'”
“Overachieving is a ridiculous concept”
The term “overachiever” has negative connotations. Some researchers believe this negative undertone has contributed to much of minority underachievement.
The National Bureau of Economic Research in a study titled “Acting White” found that blacks and Hispanics who outperformed their counterparts became social outcasts. The study said that the cost of “acting white” was more severe for black men than women.
Alyssa Dibidad is a self-described overachiever, who said she is not discouraged by petty labels. To her, being an overachiever is “better than doing nothing at all.”
Dibidad, 18, said school trumps everything in her life, and her 3.8 GPA is evidence of her hard work.
“I moved from Titusville to Tallahassee for school, so school should be my No. 1 priority,” said the sophomore biochemistry student. Her need to have an easier life pushes her to achieve – that and the fact she wants to provide a better life for her parents, who she said “have struggled money-wise.”
Dennard said the idea of overachieving is “a ridiculous concept.”
“It suggests that you could get 50 gallons worth of intelligence out of a 10-gallon mind,” the psychology professor said. “The truth is, there is no way to overachieve. One simply achieves or does not. Achievement is always possible.”
The term overachiever, Dennard explained, is used to denote someone who achieves more than expected.
But there is no “ceiling for achievement,” he said. It is merely a false notion; there are always people who will do better.
Lashaun Stevenson is one of those persons. The 21-year-old senior accounting student from Miami said she sets goals and ensures she will achieve them because she is determined to be the best.
Her goal is to graduate in two years from FAMU’s MBA program.
“Somewhere within the two years, I’m doing my MBA and I want to take the certified public accountant exam,” Stevenson said. “I want to pass it before I enter the workforce as an accountant.” Stevenson comes from a family of teachers. She plans to work toward her Ph.D. so she can teach on the college level.
In 1995, the most recent statistics available from the College Board, blacks were among the 13 percent of minorities earning bachelor’s degrees, 11 percent of the professional degrees and 6 percent of the doctoral degrees awarded by U.S. colleges and universities.
But as discouraging as these statistics are, Stevenson is not deterred.
“I want to work in the corporate world before I get my Ph.D., but I don’t think it’s (teaching) something I can stray away from; it’s in my blood,” she said.
Apparently not. Stevenson teaches math, statistics and calculus at the Learning Development Evaluation Center, which helps students with disabilities.
Factors that drive overachievers vary
Yolanda Bogan, licensed psychologist and director of FAMU’s counseling services, said students may or may not go the extra mile for various reasons.
“Students have very many sources of motivation,” she said in an e-mail. “These sources can include proximal factors, such as the particular subject or instructor, or distal factors such as the desire to get a letter of recommendation for future use or job offers at graduation.”
She said health also plays a part. “Some students are inhibited in their ability to put forth extra effort by issues such as poor nutrition, substance abuse or fear of seeking assistance.”
Bogan added that when students are unsure of the path they wish to take, it can impact their motivation.
Kristen Smith, 18, a junior biology student from Miami, said sibling rivalry is her fuel.
“I’m motivated by my family. I have five brothers and sisters, and I’m in the middle,” Smith said. “I wanna be better than the oldest and an example for the youngest. There’s a lot of competition in my family. In high school my sister got a 4.8 and because of that I had to go get a 5.0.”
Smith graduated from the School for Advanced Studies-Wolfson in Miami.
Her goal is to become an oncologist.
“My mother was diagnosed with cancer my freshman year in high school,” Smith said. “I just thought ‘what if the doctors had never caught it?’ She might not have been alive to see me in college.”
Home life always a factor
The College Board’s Task Force also found that minorities were underachieving for various reasons.
It reported that intense poverty, inadequate school resources, cultural differences and racial and ethnic prejudice, among other things contributed to minorities lagging behind whites. Bogan said a student’s surroundings has a huge impact on their mindset.
“This is the classic nature-nurture question and the answer is typically a continuation of the two,” she said. “Environments can mean the family, the household, the neighborhood, the larger community.
“Many people are motivated by their environment – to leave their environment to improve themselves and to return to make a difference in their environment; to save the environment; to reach beyond what was readily apparent in one’s environment,” Bogan added.
But Smith said there should be no roadblock to success, “If you’re passionate about something, you’ll make it happen. You’ll find a way.”