Are resilience, community commitment better measures of a valedictorian’s success?

By Roy Lincoln Karp
Special to the Reporter

In 2009, the Boston Globe ran a piece about recent law school graduates who had taken low-paying public sector jobs while waiting for the economy to improve. The story and its headline depicted this experience as a “detour on the road to success.” Many readers were appalled by the author’s narrow definition of success, which seemed to exclude dedicated public servants and public interest lawyers.

I was reminded of this article while reading “The Valedictorians Project,” the Globe’s recent investigation into the latter-day lives of Boston’s high school valedictorians in the years 2005-7. The project was presented on the front page of the Sunday magazine with the provocative question, “Is Boston failing its brightest?”

The teasers alone – with references to lost college scholarships, dashed dreams of medical school, and several cases of homelessness – were disheartening. I have always found great hope in the Globe’s annual photo spread of Boston’s valedictorians. The rich tapestry of faces reflected the increasing diversity of our city. The brief bios told many stories of immigrants overcoming barriers in pursuit of the American dream.

I put off digging into the articles for fear of what they would reveal. Yet when I finally sat down to read them, I discovered not stories of abysmal failure, but rather winding pathways through life full of unexpected twists and turns, and countless examples of resilience.

A case in point is “No Doctor in the House,” which follows up with several valedictorians who aspired to become doctors, a goal that eluded all of them. Readers learn about Abadur Rahman, East Boston’s 2006 valedictorian, who wanted to become a doctor in order to help people in his native Bangladesh. Rahman struggled with his science courses at Northeastern, especially after his father was hospitalized with serious health issues and he had to take on more hours working at CVS.

At the very end of the piece, we learn that Rahman decided to switch his major to economics. He then went on to earn his B.A. and a master’s degree and is now the economic development director for the Codman Square Neighborhood Development Corp. That’s an impressive accomplishment for a young man who came to Boston at age ten speaking limited English and had to financially support his family. Yet the Globe frames this story as an example of systemic failure because Rahman did not fulfill his teenage dream of becoming a doctor.

Another story follows English High School’s 2006 valedictorian, Shanika Bridges-King, who had an incredibly difficult home life in Bromley-Heath public housing. Faced with circumstances that would have crushed many children, she attended Bryn Mawr after earning the highly competitive Posse Foundation scholarship. The thrust of the article is that English High did not adequately prepare Bridges-King for the rigors of Bryn Mawr. But like Rahman, she persevered, got her degree, completed the Boston Teacher Residency, and currently teaches 5th grade at a Boston charter school.
Similar stories abound. Jose Barbosa (Jeremiah Burke, 2006) wanted to be an aerospace engineer. After struggling at Boston University, he transferred to Mount Ida College, where he “soared” and earned a degree in business administration. He now works as a financial reporting officer at State Street. Cesar Matos (English High, 2007) grew up in a Roxbury housing development. He transferred from Boston University to UMass Boston, where he earned his nursing degree, and is now a nurse at Mass General Hospital.

Globe columnist Adrian Walker described the Valedictorians Project as “a major indictment of the Boston Public Schools,” and to some extent it is. Many schools are clearly failing to provide a rigorous and engaging curriculum, but the series also illustrates problems that cannot be laid at the feet of BPS. These include the exorbitant cost of higher education, lack of affordable healthcare, gaps in social welfare systems, and racism faced by students of color when they arrive at elite institutions.

There’s a great deal of work ahead to address these issues. That work should begin with a frank discussion about how to define and measure success. Using students’ aspirations at age 17 as a benchmark is one way, but a rather odd one. We could also look at their abilities to overcome barriers and their commitments to serving the community. With that type of framework, we could identify and build on many powerful examples of resilience and, yes, success.