A Calculator Changed My Life

Starting my summer session courses, the first assignment was to choose between a TEDtalk and Moth style presentation. Given the following prompt, I went with the Moth style presentation.

“What’s Your Story? Because qualitative methods are all about finding, understanding, and interpreting artifacts – and to help us get to know one another – we’d like you to prepare a five minute presentation about yourself to deliver on the first day of class. The presentation should include at least one artifact (but hopefully more!) about yourself that will illuminate something about who you are and what you bring to the research enterprise.” I’ve shared my story below.

A Calculator Changed My Life

So, a calculator changed my life. A calculator similar to the one in my hand right now. Now, it wasn’t a magical calculator, I didn’t solve life’s most complex problems or provide any special kind of formulas. This calculator was a TI-83+ graphing calculator, the type need for advanced math courses at my high school, to graph parabolas, calculate slopes, find limits of functions, and so on. But more than a tool for math, this calculator changed my life; it helped me go to college.

It was towards the end of sophomore year, and I knew the courses I’d be taken the following year. And at my high school, which was predominately Latino and low income, and still is, we lacked resources. Not having graphing calculators to do graphing calculator stuff in the math classroom was one of them. Asking my family to buy me a $150 calculator was out of the question. Now my family, we weren’t that well off, but we made due together. We all lived in my grandparents’ house. My mom worked as a bank teller and my dad worked in construction, so that was a lot of money to spend on a calculator. Most of the students a year ahead of me had to fundraise, you know, selling those knockoff See’s candy bars in summer, chipping away at the price of the calculator one milk-chocolate bar at a time.

Well, one fateful day in English class, two CSUF students presented on an after school program called upward bound. I wasn’t really paying attention to their presentation, but then I heard something to the effect “if you sign up, you get a free TI-83+ calculator.” My ears perked, the trumpets played from the heavens, there was my solution. All I need to do was sign up for some club and attend a few meetings, and boom! a free $150 calculator.

Although, my initial interest was only in getting that calculator, the decision to sign up actually altered my life path. I attribute much of my educational success to joining upward bound. As a sophomore, I wasn’t sure if I was going to college, I really didn’t know much about what was expected of me after high school, and no one in my family had attended a university. I mean, I wasn’t a slouch when it came to academics, but I didn’t have big aspirations. I attended a school year more people enlisted in the military than attended four-year schools.

What started off as joining a club for a calculator, led to after school tutoring, Saturday enrichment programs, SAT prep, taking college-level courses in the summer, interacting with peers who wanted to go to college, and gaining mentors who empowered me to dream big. To be honest, I’m not sure what my life would look like without upward bound or all the experiences that came after that. I often reflect on how my simple interest in a calculator resulted in personal transformation for myself and my family.

As educational researcher I think of the lack of aspiration/motivation/support in high school and reflect on the structural/organizational barriers within my school systems that didn’t necessarily inhibit my success, but definitely didn’t foster it. I think of these interventions, compensatory programs, institutional agents, and wonder why some students were afford the opportunities, when everyone at my school (or in my community) could have benefited from them.

This calculator also represents chance, my future was left to chance, I sometimes think, what would have happened if I wasn’t in school that day or decided not to follow up. What if I was in a different English class? What if…

These questions are what drive my research goals. Why are educational opportunities left to chance? Higher education shouldn’t be like the hunger games, but when you disaggregate the data on educational opportunities, persistence, and attainment for students of color the odds are never in our favor. These life experiences inform my work and provide the motivation to not only endure in the academy, but attempt to make a difference with research and advocacy. It is my hope that educational access, success, and attainment, are no longer left to luck, but addressed through research and policies that dismantle structural barriers for communities like my own, for students like myself who are first-generation, low-income, and of color.




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