October 17, 2019

A Powerful Lesson About Achievement

The story offered insight into one of the most serious social problems of our time—the plight of the black underclass. Unfortunately, the media could only spare it passing mention before returning to their standard fare of turmoil, mayhem, and woe.

The story is that of 17-year-old black student Kwasi Enin of Long Island, NY, an outstanding role model not only for other black youth but for all American youth. He holds the remarkable distinction of having been accepted by all eight Ivy League colleges: Brown, Columbia, Dartmouth, Harvard, Princeton, Yale, and the University of Pennsylvania.

To be accepted by any one of these prestigious institutions is an honor bestowed on very few individuals. To be accepted by all of them is unheard of. Yet even more impressive than this achievement are the qualifications that underlie it: Enin scored 2250 out of a possible 2400 on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), which placed him in the 99th percentile of those who took the test. Meanwhile, he is a shot-putter on his high school track and field team, volunteers at a local hospital, plays the violin and viola, and sings in an a cappella group.

Although he aspires to be either a cardiologist or a neurologist, Enin explains in his impressive entrance exam essay that it was his experience in music that taught him “leadership, balance, and friendship.”

So what were the keys to this young first generation American’s success?

He comes from an intact family that values achievement and modeled hard work. His parents, who emigrated from Ghana in the 1980s, are both nurses, and they and his uncles and cousins were academically successful.

His command of the English language is laudable, as is evident from his college application essay.

He makes a good impression. In his Newsday interview following the announcement of the Ivy League acceptances, he was dressed casually yet appropriately in a sport shirt and a suit jacket. He also spoke softly yet clearly and confidently, maintained eye contact with the interviewer, and smiled warmly as he spoke. Clearly, his attitude was one of respect for himself and others.

He is a humble person. When asked about his reaction to being accepted at all eight institutions, rather than mention the years of arduous effort he had devoted to learning, he instead said he felt “pride, appreciation, and thankfulness” and went on to express gratitude to his teachers, counselors, and parents for their role in his achievement.

The lessons suggested by this uplifting story have been either missed or ignored by politicians, the media and entertainment industries, and many education leaders for the last half-century. These lessons are important not only for the black underclass, but for the white and Hispanic underclasses, as well. They are as follows:

Every human being has considerably more potential for achievement in education and in life than is evident in childhood.

Only effort can reveal the amount and kind of one’s potential. (Tests are no substitute for effort—they reveal only how much potential one has actualized previously.)

Effort does not come automatically for most people. They need continuing encouragement and guidance to maintain their commitment.

A stable home with concerned and loving parents is the first and most fundamental means of encouraging and guiding a young person’s efforts toward self-development, and of cultivating wholesome values and attitudes.

A supportive school system is also essential to young people’s development. This means a curriculum that challenges students to work hard and emphasizes the attitudes and values associated with success in school and in life. It also means teachers that believe in every student’s learning potential and work diligently to develop it.

How should America profit from these lessons? Political leaders should put aside divisive accusatory rhetoric, affirm these lessons, and develop initiatives that strengthen the family and the education system. Educators should have greater faith in students’ learning potential and design their curriculums to focus on that potential. Individuals in the communications and entertainment media should give less attention to negative messages of victimization caused by poverty and discrimination and more attention to positive stories like Kwasi Enin’s.

Such initiatives will inspire legions of young people to rise above defeatism and self-pity and strive to follow the example of Kwasi Enin. And that effort will benefit not only them but all Americans.

Copyright © 2015 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved

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Written by
Vincent Ryan Ruggiero

VINCENT RYAN RUGGIERO, M.A., is Professor of Humanities Emeritus, State University of New York, Delhi College. Prior to his twenty-nine year career in education, he was a social caseworker and an industrial engineer. The author of twenty-one books, his trade books include Warning: Nonsense Is Destroying America and The Practice of Loving Kindness. His textbooks include The Art of Thinking and Beyond Feelings, both in 10th editions and available in Chinese as well as English, Thinking Critically About Ethical Issues, and A Guide to Sociological Thinking. His latest book, Corrupted Culture: Rediscovering America's Enduring Principles, Values, and Common Sense, is available at Amazon and in bookstores. Professor Ruggiero is internationally recognized as one of the pioneers of the Critical Thinking movement in education. Earlier in his career, he published essays in a variety of magazines and journals, including America, Catholic Mind, The Sign, The Lamp, and Catholic World.

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Written by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero
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