tags: higher education, academic labor, colleges and universities
Gretchen Soderlund is associate professor of media history at the University of Oregon.
I failed out of high school when I was 16. Today I am a professor at the University of Oregon, teaching and mentoring students whose mean secondary school grade point average is 3.8 -- far better than mine was decades ago. Lately I’ve found myself thinking about my improbable path from high school dropout to professor. In 2017, I ordered a copy of my high school transcripts for the first time. A stranger looking at all my C’s, D’s and F’s might conclude I was a disinterested and undisciplined student. But official records rarely tell a person’s full story.
I look at my ninth-grade marks and remember the violent fight my mother and her boyfriend -- I’ll call him Mike -- got into the weekend before school started in Sonoma County, Calif. Mike was a midlevel coke dealer on whom we were financially dependent. My mom was also dependent on his coke.
Like many times before, Mike kicked us out of the house that night. I grabbed a pair of clothes and shoes and ran out the front door barefoot. With no money for a motel, my mother drove our sputtering, unregistered VW Bug to a Kmart parking lot, where we waited until morning.
The rest of ninth grade saw more of the same: we had no home of our own and bounced around between other people’s houses like the ball in a pinball machine. I often left books and homework at the last place we fled and arrived at school empty-handed. My cumulative GPA that year was 2.25.
In 10th grade, my cumulative GPA was 2.01. My mother and I had moved into a run-down house with three 18-year-olds. Life there was a constant party. One roommate and his friends were heavy crank users and rarely slept. Mom was too strung out to work. I eventually took a part-time job at a burger stand that paid enough to cover groceries. To pay rent, Mom re-established contact with Mike, who was as volatile and aggressive as he was generous.
When I look at the row and columns representing 11th grade, I see myself at 16 trying to get my mother out of the van she briefly lived in and put a roof over our heads. I initiated a desperate exchange with Mike, trading sex with him for a place to live. He rented me a condo. Sadly, I remember feeling like I had exercised control over my life for the first time.
I focused hard on school during this period and managed a 2.83 the first semester of junior year, the crowning achievement of my high school career. But when I started pulling away from Mike, chaos and instability ensued. I stopped attending school completely after spring break. I became a high school dropout.
After I turned 18, I left Sonoma County. I drove to Southern California, where I became a certified nurse’s aide and worked weekend and evening home-health-care jobs while attending a community college full-time. From there, I transferred to Virginia Commonwealth University, which accepted me based on my community college transcripts. I had not taken the GED. I got my bachelor’s degree in English from the university and then decided I wanted to go to graduate school. I started reading everything I could get my hands on and taking notes that, two decades later, I still have in a three-ring binder. I eventually entered a doctoral program in communications research at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where I studied media history and feminist media theory.
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