I have a student named Carmen. Carmen is the American Dream come to life. She came to the U.S. as a young child because her mother wanted to her to have the opportunity to work hard and get ahead. She grew up knowing if she worked hard she could achieve anything. Carmen was the first in her family to go to college. First a two-year community college, then she transferred to the flagship state university where I work to complete a bachelor’s degree in Public Administration. She knew she wanted to devote her life to public service.
Carmen is an earnest student. She always sat front and center, completed every assignment on time. Like many students before her, she said I was the first Latina she had as a professor. She asked how I made it to the very front of the classroom, and what graduate school was like. It took her a little while, but she opened up about her past and her hopes for the future. After doing well in my Diversity in Public Administration course, I asked her if she wanted to work with me on research about social justice.
She did great work, and I encouraged her to go to graduate school and get a Masters in Public Administration. She said her family was counting on her working after her degree, and she didn’t think graduate school was a possibility. I pestered her, encouraged her, and she showed the dedication to education and the drive she always has.
This summer she was in my graduate Law and Public Management class. That was when she broke my heart. It wasn’t her work. As usual, she excelled. Her papers were insightful, well researched, and well edited. Her final project explored ideas of affirmative action, equal opportunity, and tokenism in hiring. After class one day near the end of the term she lingered. She said it was hard, and she was sad. Her classes, the research we did together, and her work for her final paper all exposed the gap – the gap between our ideals as Americans and the reality of lived experiences for people of color, women, and especially women of color. It was hard to see Carmen wrestling with pain I remember well from graduate school. She knows she has to work twice as hard, be twice as good to get the same jobs and opportunities as her white classmates.
As a law and society scholar, that is what I research, what I devote my life to understanding. In our scholarship we talk about the gap between law on books and law in action. I research social equity, and the ways that race, ethnicity, gender, age, and other social identities frame the lived experiences of public servants. Everyday we learn more about the injustices of the criminal justice system and the inequities in opportunities and outcomes for people of color in our country.
I went home after that conversation really dejected. I felt like I had just told a happy child that Santa Claus doesn’t exist, I had slowly chipped Carmen’s American Dream. I was in a funk for a few days; upset that Carmen’s American Dream was crushed, and upset that I knew I had something to do with it.
I slowly came out of my funk, realizing that Carmen is the embodiment of the American Dream. As a young Latina, and a first generation college student, she has to work harder than many of her privileged peers. She had, and has, barriers to overcome. But, she is a badass student and will make an incredible public servant. I am honored that I was able to teach her and help prepare her for the world she will encounter as a working professional, all of the opportunities and obstacles. Carmen is my American Dream, she is going to make communities more equitable, she will be a thoughtful leader, and she will be a role model for others.
We often talk about creating safe spaces for students to discuss sensitive topics in the classroom, but learning often isn’t safe. I know it hurts to learn about inequalities within our community. It hurts to teach about it. I take solace in knowing that Carmen will help us live up to our American ideals. I take solace in knowing that she is my American Dream come to life. But, we also need to talk more about how we handle the pain of our students and the pain we face as scholars and teachers. I would love to hear more about your experiences and strategies for handling students’ pain, and your own, in the comments.
 Carmen is a pseudonym, used to protect her privacy.
 She joined my Sociolegal Justice Project. You can read more about that project and the nested mentorship model we use here.