Culture shock! From Oakland public schools to a private college in the South

Robin Higgins graduated from Skyline High School in 2006 and attends a university in Atlanta, Ga. She writes about her transition. -Katy

I feel like I’ve been prepared very well by the Oakland Unified School District. Since my graduation from Skyline High School in 2006 I’ve completed three years of college and never felt disadvantaged or held back by my schooling. Culturally, however, the transition has been awkward, strange, and a little discouraging.

I have not had a hard time transitioning academically from Oakland schools to a private college, but I also got the very best of what the OUSD schools had to offer. My parents were my advocates, involved in a way that gave me the very best of a given school, and shielded me from some of the less functional parts. Teachers in my middle and high school ranged from inspiring individuals who shape every student they have in a positive way to so mind-bogglingly bad it’s a wonder they even bother to get up in the morning.

Having a year of English with one type of teacher versus the other can result in learning how to construct an essay or learning how to play poker in a back corner of a classroom. The reputation of these teachers is known through gossip and rumors far before the school schedules are passed out, and they’re almost always correct. My parents were in the offices of the administrators arguing to change my schedule every year during the first week of school. Additionally, they constantly gave me other tools in the form of private math tutoring, piano lessons, and family reading so that I could get into the GATE program and later, advanced math and science, honors and AP classes.

Because of their intense involvement and dedication to my education, my parents helped make my transition to a competitive university academically easy to experience. The cultural aspect though, was a little more uncomfortable.

My university is in Atlanta, and the average student is very wealthy. They most likely went to private schools or affluent public schools that were almost all white or Asian, and from my perspective at least, are very sheltered. It’s uncomfortable to come from a situation so different, and be in a place where no one understands what your experiences have been. I’ve been in a social situation where someone will quote a joke about race from Dave Chappelle or Chris Rock and it feels weird. People will talk about how unlucky it is to be a white male and dismiss every female or minority for being let in on affirmative action. Many students believe that every single person who isn’t making six figures is just lazy. It’s hard to take these opinions seriously when those people have spent their entire lives in a wealthy suburb, and don’t have any grasp of inner city issues besides vague references on the nightly news. The civil rights movement and Southern guilt has erased direct comments about black people, but it seems like Asian, gay, and Jewish culture are fair game as long as you add “just kidding” to anything you feel like spewing.

So it’s weird. I spoke up my first couple of years and still do if it’s especially inappropriate, but for the most part I stopped after being called a ‘preachy Californian’ a few dozen times. I guess the lessons I learned from OUSD are that there’s a good education in the system if you’re willing to fight for one, and race relations may not be perfect in Oakland, but it doesn’t come close to the backwards views of rich kids in Atlanta.

Katy Murphy

Education reporter for the Oakland Tribune. Contact me at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com.

  • Debora

    Robin: Thank you for taking the time to tell us how you have been both academically and socially. I applaud your courage to leave California for your education. As you have witnessed, education is more than the knowledge gained in the classroom.

    I look forward to hearing more about your life. If you have a chance it would be great if you could add to some of the comments about college. The older adults, myself included, have been trying to figure out how to get students who are committed to graduation into the best suited colleges.

  • AC Mom

    Robin: Thank you for your comments. I too experienced a similar culture shock as an undergrad. Unfortunately, I had no one in my family that could relate to my situation as neither of my parents had gone to college, and the school that I graduate from provided inadequate counseling for undergraduates. At my school undergrads were regarded as intellectual vermin. Well, not quite, but pretty close. Long story short: I graduated on time, did well. But, I realize now that I sorely needed some advice that would have made the 4 years go alot smoother. You are going into your 3rd year so this may be a little late for you, but here is my $0.02. Seek out mentors on campus…This may not be easy, but you need someone on campus that can help you to get the most out of your education. Your mentor may or may not not be a professor, but someone who is generally in the know about opportunities (financial aid, career services, etc.) on campus. This person (or persons) can also be a sounding board for decisions, etc. Second, hold tight to your friends. And finally, do what you do…You are not there to prove your self worth to anyone, or to be the spokesperson, hero, etc. for any group. Good luck.

  • Oakland Teacher

    Robin is a great example of the best and brightest in Oakland. Her parents are tremendous advocates of public education, and Robin is a good example of how well students in Oakland can do with the right supports. Unfortunately, as she also mentioned, it is important to get the right teachers.

    What Robin did not mention (she is too modest) is that she was a real leader during her high school years – valedictorian and editor of the Skyline student newspaper.

    Thanks for sharing one of the other benefits of attending a public highschool: a deepened awareness of the larger world and the people who live there.

  • Let’s Get Real

    Thank you for sharing, Robin, and for representing OUSD so well. Your insights will surely be of help to new college students and their parents.

  • Nextset


    My Take: The world doesn’t revolve around you, your values, your interests – especially your racial/cultural priorities.

    I’m only preaching because I’ve had my taste.

    These kids – taking your story to date – are in the world for number one. And if it’s true you’ve somehow landed in a whole school of them, you are going to gave an interesting time. You can’t change them, “fix” them and maybe you can’t beat them either.

    And just wait till you join a workforce full of them.

    This is not about right or wrong or good or bad. You are going to have to join the country club or move. I suspect that you are reacting more to the initial attitude differences rather than making a study of what makes the beautiful people tick. You just got there. Spend the year getting on top of your academics and in the process really learn the people you will be working with and competiting with from now on.

    If they think a certain way, especially if the majority of them do, there is a reason for it. If they are all in a good college and your more liberal friends are not, there is a reason for it. Believe me, Grad School is a whole new level of these attitudes. It’s survival of the fittest and people don’t respect those who don’t survive. Maybe that’s a defense mechanism.

    Don’t avoid contact with your classmates. Take cultural anthropology. Make contacts & network. Keep us posted on your work.

    At your age, first impressions are not any true understanding of what you are dealing with.

    Brave New World.

  • ProStudent

    What I loved about going to school in the south is that they give the racism to you straight. Californians are just as racist as southerners are but they hide it behind liberal preaching. Conversations can be so much richer when people are speaking genuinely and we are listening for true understanding of where people are coming from.

    Also, what I love about Atlanta is that there is sooooo much diversity. It is truly a global city. You see ten people with black faces and they come from ten different countries speaking ten different languages. Incredible.

  • Cranky Teacher

    Nextset, before you condescend to EVERY guest blogger, you might want to actually read what they say. In this case, she did not just get there but has been there three years. These are not “first impressions.”

  • Caroline

    I really don’t agree with Nextset that there’s no point in speaking up. I understand that Robin’s experience is that after a while it’s wearying, so I’m not saying it’s a constant obligation to speak up.

    But college is supposed to be exchanging discourse, broadening horizons, having your views expanded, etc. How is that supposed to happen if people just meekly keep their mouths shut when they have a view that might enlighten someone else?

    And Nextset, it’s ironic that someone who is not at all afraid to voice controversial opinions yourself, and try to change people’s views, seems to urge others to be docile, compliant, silent little mice and never disturb anyone’s equilibrium.

    I also disagree that it’s a good thing to allow racism to be socially acceptable. As the song from “Avenue Q” goes, everyone IS a little bit racist, but there’s a huge difference between embracing and celebrating racism and making it distasteful and unacceptable. It’s bizarre to advocate the former, except presumably for white supremacists who envision a very different perfect world than most of us do.

    From Avenue Q:
    Everyone’s a little bit racist
    Doesn’t mean we go
    Around committing hate crimes.
    Look around and you will find
    No one’s really color blind.
    Maybe it’s a fact
    We all should face
    Everyone makes judgments
    Based on race.

    Everyone’s a little bit racist
    So, everyone’s a little bit racist
    Ethnic jokes might be uncouth,
    But you laugh because
    They’re based on truth.
    Don’t take them as
    Personal attacks.
    Everyone enjoys them –
    So relax!

    If we all could just admit
    That we are racist a little bit,
    Even though we all know
    That it’s wrong,
    Maybe it would help us
    Get along.

    The Jews have all
    The money
    And the whites have all
    The power.
    And I’m always in taxi-cab
    With driver who no shower!

    Everyone’s a little bit racist
    It’s true.
    But everyone is just about
    As racist as you!
    If we all could just admit
    That we are racist a little bit,
    And everyone stopped being
    So PC
    Maybe we could live in –

  • Nextset

    Caroline: You assume way too much.

    If you think – and you do – that the way to progress here is to throw hissy fits everytime you think you see “racism” you will end up accomplishing nothing for yourself or for your clan.

    Study history and study what works.

    People in competitive schools are their to get the credential (graduate), to network, to get an advantageous marriage, and to get established on a career ladder. They are not there to play Joan of Arc.

    The school years are an opportunity to study the people you will compete with before you have to compete with them in the workplace.

    Dealing with direct insults must occur. Chasing after people and trying to fix them, change them, etc is not what you are there for. If you perceive them as the enemy you need to get close to them. Close enough to learn them well.

    The “racist” cant is the sign of a weak mind. Weak minds have no place in a competitive university.

  • Caroline

    You don’t have to “throw hissy fits” to calmly voice an objection or contrasting opinion. Throwing hissy fits is indeed ineffective. Firmly and calmly setting someone straight is not.

  • Oakland Teacher

    I disagree: people who attend college are there to broaden their world view and engage in respectful conversations/debates with others in an academic setting, in addition to learning subject specific content. It would be a shame for someone to come out of college with nothing more than academics. I just came back from the south, and can totally relate to not wanting to get into it with people whose views are so different from my own. But that is not where this thread has gone, it has turned into Nextset using it to being against someone, just for the sake of arguing.

    But, as a teacher, most of all it is important that people learn when to use “there” and when to use “their”, because no matter how great your college, your job, your spouse, or your paycheck, you will come across as uneducated when you mix up the two!

  • Cranky Teacher

    Nextset, don’t you think you own an apology to the blogger for slamming her based on an misreading of her text?

    You’re such a dancer! You never respond directly to challenges.

  • Nextset

    Cranky: Explain yourself..

    Caroline: As usual we tend to disagree. While I’m not saying the student can’t disagree in debates about philosophy, I am concerned that she isn’t ready to be with students who don’t share her value set at all, and she takes that difference personally.

    One of the things about going away to college is that you move outside of your politically correct warm and fuzzy home base, and enter the Brave New World where your competition is only out for themselves and their clan. The new student has to find a way through this if she is to function in the marketplace of work and ideas.

    This is particularly jarring for Black Students. Our urban schools do not bring it’s students up to comfortably handle themselves in an open environment which is why their candidates fail so much in work and career prep. The first thing you hear out of them is “uncomfortable” – as if anybody cares about their comfort. I want all the student candidates to succeed but the urban ones I see are not as prepared as they should be.

    You are there to do a job. You will be going places (I hope) to do a lot of jobs. Increasingly more important and better paid. Dive in and deal with it. You don’t have to marry all these people but you need to learn what makes them tick.

    So no sympathy from me about the comfort zones. Try Professional School.

    Ever had the experience of taking students to an expensive restaurant and they “don’t like” the food? What do they want, McDonalds or KFC?

  • Caroline

    Nextset, you’d be interested in my son’s attitude. He’s like me — a raging leftist by the standards of most of the U.S., but a moderate by San Francisco standards. He likes to engage in online discussion lists about politics (and religion — he’s a militant atheist) with people who disagree with him. But he has said for years that he lived in a place where everyone thought he was a commie subversive instead of a moderate.

    He just started college this week at Oberlin, in rural northern Ohio outside Cleveland — a liberal college in a conservative part of the country — so he’s not really getting his wish. A jock/frat college would have provided that real difference, but that’s so not his thing. Oberlin is pretty much jock/frat-free.

    We did drive him to college, though, a 6-day trip on Highway 80, listening to Glenn Beck and Rush on the radio through Wyoming and Nebraska, and wondering what people thought of our pro-marriage-equality bumper sticker.

  • Caroline

    Sorry, I mean my son has said he WISHES he lived in a place where he was a subversive commie atheist.

  • Nextset

    It will be interesting to see the USA he grows old in. I’m pretty sure it will be closer to a totalitarian state than anything we experienced at his age.