EastBay Today

Feature
Posted December 11, 2017

‘I Was a Shadow in the Dark

Student Rehan Siddique is first in a new East Bay Today series on social mobility 
to share how college is transforming his future

The American dream. It means many things to many people — the ability to buy a home, go to college, enter a career of choice — but its most basic principle is that those aspirations can be achieved by anyone in this country who is willing to work for them. Yet a spate of recent studies finds that one of the fundamental ideals of American democracy, social mobility, has been on the decline for decades. 

As just one example, according to the Equal Opportunity Project (a policy organization rooted in big data), a child’s likelihood of out-earning their parents has fallen 40 percent in the last century. Even more troubling, per the Brookings Institute, how you start off in life is a predominant indicator of how you’ll finish: “If you are born to parents in the poorest fifth of the income distribution, your chance of remaining stuck in that income group is around 35 to 40 percent. If you manage to be born into a higher-income family, the chances are similarly good that you will remain there in adulthood,” the 2016 analysis read.  

Despite tides of tough news, awareness is increasing surrounding the challenge of social mobility in this country, and the critical role that colleges and universities play in the ascension of low-income populations. A four-year degree can nearly double the lifetime earnings of a high school graduate, according to a study published in U.S. News & World Report, but opportunity, affordability and support for low-income students remain key challenges. 

Founded on the premise that “The higher education degree has become the new high school diploma, an essential requisite for obtaining reasonable employment and achieving economic mobility in the 21st century,” CollegeNET.com has been compiling the Social Mobility Index in an effort to recognize institutions promoting social mobility since 2014. According to its rankings, California leads the charge in access to education for underserved students, and the 23-campus California State University system accounts for 13 of the top 30 institutions helping to reinvigorate the potential of the state’s young people and breathe new life into the American Dream.

Cal State East Bay, specifically, is ranked No. 21, or in the top 2 percent, of 1,363 colleges and universities nationwide.

Here, in the first installment of a new East Bay Today series, we want you to meet the students whose lives, families and communities are being changed through the opportunity of a college degree, and also get a snapshot of the very real statistics our students are up against when it comes to breaking through the barriers to their futures.

Meet senior Rehan Siddique.

Before he was the recipient of prestigious scholarships, including the CSU Trustee’s Award for Outstanding Achievement and Cal State East Bay’s Presidential Scholarship, student Rehan Siddique was a truant caught up in street gangs in Oakland. His mother, who had two boys before she was 18 and raised them alone, was frequently forced to bounce between housing situations in some of the East Bay’s roughest neighborhoods.

“For years at a time, there was just the feeling of not knowing what was going to happen,” Siddique says. “It’s the scariest feeling a person can have, like, you don’t know tomorrow. You don’t have control over your life. We would always move around — we were on food stamps. And my mom, bless her, would just work 18-hour days to take care of us. But that also meant that she was gone and didn’t know a lot of what [my brother and I] were getting involved in.”

In Oakland, 27 percent of homes are headed by single women, the highest rate of all East Bay communities, and 53 percent of unwed mothers live below the poverty level, according to 2016 U.S. Census Bureau data. The Progressive Policy Institute estimates less than 2 percent of teen mothers obtain college degrees.

Siddique says it’s a common dynamic among the kids he grew up with that frequently led to getting into trouble, and early exposure to violence and drugs.

“You grow up in these situations … I remember once as a kid my mom slapped me because I reached down and touched this puddle on the sidewalk and it was blood,” he recalls. “And I had to go to the hospital once because I found candy on the basketball court at my school, it was in a little plastic wrapper, and it turned out to be crack.”

As a teenager without much supervision, Siddique was eager to follow in the footsteps of older boys in his neighborhood, which meant becoming involved in the street gangs where they lived.

“I was a shadow in the dark, not even attending classes,” he says. “I was more concerned about activities outside of high school: gang life, girls, fights, truancy. Disappointment. Everything besides school and studies.”

A landmark 2016 data study from the U.S. Department of Education found that half of the nation’s chronically absent students are concentrated in just 4 percent of schools — including high-poverty, high-minority districts in San Francisco, San Leandro and Oakland. The risks of truancy include juvenile crime, incarceration, drug and alcohol abuse, falling behind in classes and ultimately, dropping out of school.

Siddique’s wake-up call came when his mother was briefly hospitalized for mental health issues surrounding the family’s continually changing living situations and financial strain. Although by that point Siddique had already been expelled from several other high schools in the East Bay, he managed to graduate from a continuation high school in Tracy, Calif., with a GPA of 2.75.

“With my mom in the hospital, it was the catalyst for me,” he says. “When I saw her at the hospital … there’s a point in time when somebody has to take responsibility. Everyone has an anchor in their life, and for me, that’s my mom.”

Siddique began by enrolling in one community college class at a time, sometimes taking long breaks, while also working full time to help support his family. In 2015, at 27 years old, he was accepted to UC Davis and Cal State East Bay, and chose Cal State East Bay for its attractive package of scholarships, grants and financial aid, and proximity to home.

According to a report from the National Center for Education Statistics published in the New York Times, students with the same academic achievement level are starkly divided by their parents’ income and education levels, and corresponding graduation rates. While high school sophomores across the board had high hopes for college, 13 years later, just 14 percent of low-income students managed to finish four-year degrees while two-thirds of high-income students completed the same achievement.

He also began visiting his old neighborhood in Oakland to play basketball with his friends, and organizing younger boys to join in after school. The group never had a formal name — otherwise, Siddique says, it would have lost its “cool” factor among the kids — but eventually, he reports, anywhere from 40 to 60 elementary and middle school boys would be clamoring to play, and doing homework on the bench while waiting their turn.

The gathering dwindled as Siddique devoted more time to his studies and amassing volunteer hours (600-plus) at Highland Hospital, but he’s currently looking into permits with East Bay Parks and Recreation to try and start it back up again — and ensure a consistent safe place for kids like the one he used to be.  

The Afterschool Alliance, co-founded by the U.S. Department of Education, reports that 3-6 p.m. are “peak hours for juvenile crime and experimentation with drugs, alcohol, cigarettes and sex.” Particularly for middle schoolers, the organization states, involvement in these things at a critical point in their life trajectory can lead to less engagement at school, less interest in college and preparedness, and ultimately, career potential.

“I really do want to help people. It wasn’t just a lie I told on my scholarship essays,” Siddique says. “I actually really like giving back to those I know who can make it. A lot of those boys I played basketball with, they’re smart — way smarter than me. But they’re in situations that they’re not able to use their gifts in school; they’re putting that creativity toward other negative outlets.”

Today, as he looks toward not only graduating with honors in spring 2018, but being the first in his family to hold a college degree, Siddique is planning to attend a Physician’s Assistant program — hopefully at Stanford — in preparation for a life in health care.

As for what that degree means to him?

“It means that anything is possible in that cliché sense,” he says. “It means that I can give what I’ve always wanted to my mom. And it’s validation for the hard work that I’ve done myself. It’s a ticket.”

According to the salary reporting company Glassdoor, the average base salary for a Physician’s Assistant in San Francisco is 18 percent higher than the national average at $120,203 per year. It’s also substantially more than what the Siddique family, with three members, has managed to live on for the past 30 years. 

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