Dr. Anthony Abraham Jack, a.k.a. Dr. Jack, speaks openly about how his life took quite the journey to bring him to where he is today. Dr. Jack brought us back to the beginning of that journey, sharing how his experiences as a child in Head Start changed the trajectory of his remarkable path in life.

NHSA: Dr. Jack, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and the work you do?

Dr. Jack: Sure. I grew up in Miami, Florida and I was a first generation college student at Amherst College, where I graduated in 2007. Then, in 2016, I received a PhD in Sociology from Harvard. Today, I am a junior fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows, assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and assistant professor at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. My research focuses on the overlooked diversity among lower-income undergraduates: the doubly-disadvantaged­—those who enter college from local, typically distressed public high schools—and the privileged poor­—those who do so from boarding, day, and preparatory high schools.

NHSA: That’s the focus of your new book, too — The Privileged Poor. Can you tell us a little bit about that and what the book tour is like?

Dr. Jack: Yeah it’s cool, you know, because as a first gen student, I didn’t do the whole college tour thing. So now I get to do that, visit college campuses across the country. The Privileged Poor, is about the struggles of less privileged students, which continue long after they’ve arrived on campus. It documents how university policies and cultures can exacerbate preexisting inequalities, and reveals why these policies hit some students harder than others. The idea is that if we truly want our top colleges to be engines of opportunity, university policies and campus cultures will have to change.

NHSA: It seems to align with Head Start’s mission of supporting vulnerable children, too, but from the higher education perspective. Where did you attend Head Start?

Dr. Jack: I grew up in Miami and attended Head Start in Coconut Grove at the Frankie Shannon Rolle Center. I remember my mom worked as a secretary, or maybe volunteered in some way, at the Center for a short period of time. I remember going with her to meetings at night. And one thing I liked about going to school at that resource center is that it was also a place in my community where people could rent out space when they wanted to host events in my neighborhood.

NHSA: That idea of community is so important to Head Start. You write about how students carry all the outside factors of their lives with them into their learning environments. Head Start recognizes that, too, and takes a whole child, whole family approach, connecting parents to job services, connecting families to health services, and really trying to bring the whole community into the experience. Do you see this community approach as beneficial?

Dr. Jack: Yes. I just want to echo that because that kind of wraparound service is what middle class families already have. Because of where a middle class family lives, their community parks and pools are invested in, their community resources are there, their schools have more resources. If a child has special needs and needs an IEP, it’s not necessarily easy to get one, but those resources are there to wraparound the child.

So, the way in which I think a program like Head Start, especially when done intentionally to bring families into the mix, can make a change is by getting not just students, but families to think about asking for help. We want to demystify the idea of reaching out for support and resources. Making it in mobility is not just about an individual effort where we should just hunker down and do everything on our own. Connections matter and connections to people whose job it is to help us matter.

And so the ability for us to start at an extremely early age, to get people to, quite frankly, feel as entitled to resources and support as their more affluent peers, is something that I think should be a goal. Because there are resources out there that we should tap into and those resources could really change the course of someone’s life.

NHSA: Any other messages you want to share with the Head Start community, Dr. Jack?

Dr. Jack: I just want to reiterate that point that I want to change the way we think about asking for help. I want people to see seeking out support as an integral part of one’s personal and social growth. The ability to seek help is a sign of strength and maturity because what it’s saying is that you are approaching the limits of your own understanding, but you are smart enough to seek out someone who can shepherd you through new learning and new growth.

Malkia Payton-Jackson

Malkia Payton-Jackson is NHSA’s first-ever director of alumni engagement. Back in Cambridge, Head Start is where she made her first best friend — and now, she’s inviting Head Start alumni to connect with one another, share their unique stories, and help keep Head Start strong for generations to come.

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