Jason VanOra’s Desperate to Achieve provides one of the most intimate explorations of the journeys, hardships, and aspirations of “developmental” or “remedial” community college students currently available. Based on an intensive set of interviews concerning students’ life histories and academic challenges, Desperate to Achieve is one of the sole texts to defy common representations of these at-risk students and more fully illuminate their commitments to scholarship, unique wisdoms about teaching and learning, and identities that are enhanced by relationships with others.
Throughout the book, students speak about what it feels like to be a student in remedial classes and contend with failed exams, difficulties with writing, and a sense of powerlessness in relation to teachers and grades. They also reveal extraordinary life challenges including incarceration, addiction, abuse, and early childhood loss. And yet, despite these myriad adversities, students convey tremendous levels of resiliency, specifically in their capacities to persist with difficult skills-building classes and to reframe failure as one stage in the larger trajectory of a successful college experience. They also illuminate what the author theorizes as “wisdom” in their capacities to creatively reimagine the college classroom as a more relational, cooperative, and inclusive site of both belonging and renewal.
Ultimately, the author, a community college professor himself, draws on students’ life-challenges, reflections, and insights to propose potentially lasting and long-term interventions for assessing, educating, and meeting the needs of developmental students in community college. Unique to the author’s proposal are the notions of capitalizing more explicitly on students’ relational commitments in the development of curricula and working collaboratively with developmental students to delineate the sorts of practices (classroom and college-wide) that would foster their success and support their inclusion within the larger college community.
Jason VanOra is a gifted story teller, theorist and teacher who introduces us to young people struggling in college. This is not a depressing, or even romantic story about a small group of "remedial" students. This is a story about young people who reflect the gorgeous diversity of New York, immigrant and native born, yearning to be recognized and educated; young people who return time and again to a space of failure to get it right. This is a scholarly analysis of lives in motion, lives propelled by education desire and lives blessed with a relentless commitment to achieve.
Ironically and tragically these very powerful and poignant voices of educational desire are drowned out in the neoliberal reform talk, and yet these are the young people who hold our future in their hands. We are fortunate for their commitments, and lucky that Jason VanOra has so beautifully sketched their thirst for education, desire to achieve, and their collective struggles to be educated in the midst of growing inequality gaps. This volume is both theoretically inspirational and strategically a call to action for educational justice.
—Michelle Fine, Ph.D. Distinguished Professor of Psychology, Urban Education, and Women's Studies.
The Graduate Center, City University of New York
1. Developmental Students in Community College: The Issues at Hand
2. “I Have so Many Things to Do I Am Literally Going Crazy”: Academic Struggles
3. “I Was Pregnant and There Was No Running Water and No Food”: Trauma and Hardship
4. “College is Giving Me a Chance to Live”: Motivations and Love of Learning
5. “We’re Going to Get Together and Just Going to Practice and Practice”: The Role of Others
6. “I’ve Learned That It’s OK to Fail”: Student Wisdoms
7. Implications for Teaching, Learning, and the Academy
Appendix A: Sample Placement Exam Questions
Appendix B: Methodology
Appendix C Demographics and Remediation Histories