I recently took my two high school students to a physics laboratory at UCLA where they could work on a lab project with other high school students. My students are minority students from a low-income area, and I feel like they are completely out of place among the other students at the lab who are mostly from a privileged socio-economic standing; the lab was open to all students, but we were the only low-income minorities their that day. How can I help my students to not be intimated by the class/cultural barrier?

Some examples that came up during the lab were as such:

  • We took the bus 2 hours to get to the lab, while other students were casually speaking about their lavish plans for the rest of their summer vacation to travel abroad.

  • When one of the other students asked my students which high school they were from, and they responded with a low-income school's name, there was some audible discouragement in my students' voices.

  • After the lab, one of my students told me how 'those other kids didn't seem normal', and it was pretty obvious he/she was referring to aforementioned differences.

  • Also after the lab, one of my students seemed discouraged by the fact that some of the other students had already been working on the project for a number of years and that he/she is just now getting involved in research.

I'm really worried that these sorts of difference will end up discouraging my students, what can I tell them to keep their spirits up?

*Note: I use the term "my student(s)" because I am not the actual parent but an advisor for a minority outreach science program.

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    I sincerely feel like most minority parents would really struggle with this issue, but they do not have the resources/education to ask this question, which is why I am doing so. I personally feel this is very on topic for the social-development tag.
    – Loonuh
    Jul 13, 2015 at 22:30
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    I could presumably talk to the student's parents and inform them about the situation, and also then link them to this Q & A. Perhaps then answers with both approaches would be appreciated.
    – Loonuh
    Jul 13, 2015 at 22:37
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    I think there's a meta already discussing whether or not questions are on-topic if you could just swap the actual author with a parent. IIRC, the response was that such questions are on topic so long as the question is otherwise on topic. (On mobile, can't find link. But meta was about asking from kid's point of view? So maybe not 100% related. Worth a meta of its own if the other isn't applicable)
    – user11394
    Jul 14, 2015 at 3:50
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    Oh, and when I was younger I would have loved if my mom was given an answer to this. Class differences in certain academic activities are quite obvious and discouraging to lower classes, in my personal experience.
    – user11394
    Jul 14, 2015 at 3:53
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    @CreationEdge That would be this post which again links to this answer. I vaguely seem to remember another post, but can't find it ATM.
    – Stephie
    Jul 14, 2015 at 4:40

3 Answers 3


I grew up relatively poor and went to one of the worst high schools in my city, with a large minority population. I didn't realize it at the time, because I enjoyed the essence of white privilege, which is that it didn't occur to anyone to tell me my economic and educational circumstances would hold me back.

My advice is to act like you belong, because you do. Science is highly merit-based. Rich people aren't born knowing physics. At best, their fancy schools gave them a year or two head start. Once you start working on your project, people will judge you by your work, and won't care where you came from, so get to work. Let your work be your common ground.

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    I feel like at least I'll just tell them exactly to "Act like you belong, because you do", and that itself will be very powerful. Actually your whole second paragraph, that sounds very direct and professional, I'll need to memorize it haha.
    – Loonuh
    Jul 14, 2015 at 15:43
  • Tomorrow I'm taking my students to the lab again Karl, gotta' memorize this passage tonight! ;)
    – Loonuh
    Jul 18, 2015 at 1:28

Too Long; Didn't read:

  1. Emphasize similarities, not differences
  2. Teach them to avoid expectations of being rejected merely for being from poor background
  3. Immunize them (teach to ignore) disdain from some jerks who will reject them - don't let bad attitude discourage them, EVER. But important part is to not treat everyone in advance as if you expect them to be a jerk.
  4. Ensure that they value hard work and study. Those kids like the ones you encountered value those values most of all in anyone they meet.

First off, since this site encourages answers from personal experience, here's my background:

  • I went to what would be considered a "extremely bad inner-city school" in USA, for 7 years.
  • I was a member of an actively discriminated against ethnic minority
  • I immigrated to USA with ~$5 in my pocket and very poor knowledge of English
  • As a result of the latter, I had to attend one of the worst colleges around, and work 4 simultaneous part time jobs while studying for double major.
  • I didn't have access to ANY computers for much of my upbringing. I had to learn C and Pascal and LOGO on paper, via correspondence class.
  • blah-blah-blah, barefoot in the snow uphill both ways for 10 miles.
  • Despite all these, I studied very hard my entire life, and as a result, I achieved high academic success both during my school years (including successfully applying for and excelling in, a magnet science high school that I had to travel 2 hours/day the bus to attend; and a good job right after college)
  • My only "privilege" was that I had extremely supportive parents who considered studying to be the most important thing.

So, what did that experience teach me that could help address your loaded question(s)?

The approach that I would recommend would be to help your students to get rid of their own biases and prejudices (which unfortunately appear to be shared by yourself and sadly, likely color their views). I'll unpack below, addressing your points one by one:

  • "We took the bus 2 hours to get to the lab"

    Does the fact that they spent 2 hours on a bus significantly impact their ability to do academic work, or are you simply trying to stoke your student's envy over irrelevant differences? They could have used those 2 hours on the bus to read relevant literature, study, or engage in academic discussion.

    Personally, today I spend ~2 hours every day on commute every day to work. Does that tell you anything about my socio-economic background? Or my present socio-economic status? Or whether I spend those 2 hours productively?

    So, what do you do to accustom your students?

    First, you explain that those 2 hours can be spent productively. They can read textbooks, or articles, on the bus.

    Second, you stop encouraging irrelevant envy. Does the fact that they don't get to go in European vacation somehow impact their ability to study physics or do physics experiments? Far as I'm aware, those kids you encourage to be jealous of, don't go to Europe to intern at CERN, they go there to relax. Something one can equally well do in California. Or better yet, spend that time studying instead of relaxing.

  • they responded with a low-income school's name, there was some audible discouragement in my students' voices

    Here's an interesting fact: one thing missing from the questions wording - not by accident, i wager - was that there was no discouragement from the "rich" students upon hearing the answer.

    Geeks can be as snobby and not-nice as any collection of humans, but they generally tend to be less caring of how you look or how much money you have. So if your students don't start off expecting hostility, you may find that they won't actually encounter any hostility, and instead find friendship.

    What do you do to accustom your students?

    Explain that they are valuable human beings. That those they encounter are the same. To start off being friendly, and see how that goes. Some people will be friendly - or even helpful - right back. Some will act like French nobility and can and should be safely ignored.

    Pretty much how everything will go everywhere in life - those students of yours AND every other human is always in a mix of people who are nice and jerks, people who are better off than they are and some who are worse off.

  • 'those other kids didn't seem normal'

    Yes, that "seem" is the root of the problem. Those other kids are deep geeks/nerds, who spend nearly all their waking time studying, and such. This has nothing to do with "socio-economic background" other than one important factor: in their background, they are shamed for it somewhat less (since you explicitly mention "minority" issue, look up the "acting white" phenomenon of minority academic achievers being shamed by their own community).

    What do you do to accustom your students?

    Most importantly, you work with their parents so the parents are as supportive of their academic aspirations as possible. This explicitly includes counteracting peer pressure around "acting white" negativity. Second of all, you try to reverse this mental construct they have that the other kids your encountered are "not normal". Of course your students won't to mesh with someone "not normal" (see below).

    Guess what, those other kids are not "members of higher socio-economic class". They are human beings. Just like your students. Perhaps if you stress that fact to your students, they would have a far easier time seeing themselves in UCLA lab environment than if you keep stressing the differences.

  • "one of my students seemed discouraged by the fact that some of the other students had already been working on the project for a number of years and that he/she is just now getting involved in research"

    OK, this one is definitely a valid concern that does need addressing. Thankfully, it seems worse than it is in reality, if you keep things in perspective.

    What do you do to accustom your students?

    There are four approaches to this.

    1. One was somewhat addressed by an existing answer - you should explain to your students that they may be slightly behind, but not nearly as much behind as it seems.

      The difference between someone who did advanced work for 2 years and 0 years is nearly infinite. 1 year later, if your student is willing to put in an effort, the difference between 1 year and 3 years of experience will be far less. 5 years later, it will be negligible. Now, it's bloody difficult for a high school kid to apply that kind of far view - that's where you as the adult of influence in their life - and hopefully, their parents as well - come in.

    2. A second approach is to remind them that they aren't dealing with average kids here.

      Those kids doing physics labs at UCLA are the far tail end of distribution - the uber geeks (yes, I'm aware that this ironically somewhat contradicts the second bullet point about "not normal" I discussed above).

      90% (or, likely, 99%) of kids who will attend UCLA - even of from the same "higher socio-economic class" - do not and did not go to UCLA labs for several years while in school. So, the kids you work with aren't going to be judged on an impossible level against the best of the best of the best (tm Will Smith). Instead of "this is what I can't ever be", those student your encountered should be viewed at "this is the level of knowledge and skill I can aspire to in a couple of years as well".

    3. This one may not sound fair, but you should teach them that they are likely to need to work harder than other students, to overcome their current disadvantage.

      So, find out what labs those other "rich" students who came to the lab did before, and study all the theoretical materials and calculations for those labs. You don't need to be in a lab to do that, just to work hard. Open an account for them on a forum that helps younger students with science questions (a physics equivalent of MathOverflow) and encourage them to ask there if they are stuck. Work, study, work, study. It's not as fun as hangin' out with their friends, but it's the main thing they need to achieve and to close any gap they have.

    4. To top it off - your students should USE the fact that they are more experienced students!

      Guess what, geeks love to show off how smart they are - and many, if not most of them - tend to do it by teaching those who know less. Heck, just look at StackOverflow for a pure, distilled uber-example.

      So, if the kids you work with start off with the attitude "hey, this dude/dudette is like me, but had a chance to learn more, I should be friendly with them and see if I can learn from them" - they would get a great boost, probably more than they can get out of teachers. Of course, to do that, they do need to shed the hostile "these are the enemy class" "not normal" attitude that seems to be fostered among them.

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    "The approach that I would recommend would be to help your students to get rid of their own biases and prejudices (which unfortunately appear to be shared by yourself and sadly, likely color their views)". You are assuming a lot in this statement, and it seems to convolute your answer. Unless you run some highly successful non-profit that is churning out Elon Musk-level students from 3rd world countries, I kindly suggest you get off your high horse. Also, your segregation of "Geeks"/"Non-geeks" steamrolls over actual socio-economic issues in a horrifying manner.
    – Loonuh
    Aug 31, 2015 at 20:18
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    @Loonuh - I was under impression you were looking for realistic ways to help those kids "accustom to interact with others", not excuses for why they face difficulties. And yes, "afraid to walk home after dark" is pretty much most of my childhood. With crime rate far above LA. And people of my parents's socioeconomic status couldn't provide absolute standard of living above that of a random welfare family in USA. So, yes, I know exactly whereof I speak. Whether you choose to listen or let your favorite ideology blind you is entirely up to you.
    – WeiWeiLu
    Sep 1, 2015 at 1:40
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    This answer seems to boil down to "just ignore the socio-economic disparity", which is a wonderful ideal but difficult in practice, and I can't find much practical advice on how to help reach that paradigm shift. More importantly, however, the tone attacks both the students and particularly the OP and I'm not surprised at all that he doesn't appreciate your Answer.
    – Acire
    Sep 1, 2015 at 12:01
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    You've mixed the practical advice in heavily with rudeness, though, and that detracts from the impact. It doesn't "need" to be presented unpleasantly. And "marxist class enmity" doesn't really seem to be the issue facing the OP's students.
    – Acire
    Sep 1, 2015 at 12:56
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    "has a problem in their thinking" = rudeness — there are ways such a concept can be constructively phrased.
    – Acire
    Sep 1, 2015 at 13:00

There was, recently, a This American Life Podcast addressing a similar situation that you may be interested in listening to.

* SPOILER ALERT for that Episode *

In that episode one of the students ends up going to class at a privileged school but he can't afford the books so he falls behind in class:

I didn't do the homework, so I'm going now into a class where, one, it's a different dynamic. Now I'm in Fieldston, where it's 12 kids to a teacher, and I'm the only black kid in some of these classes. I'm the only kid in some of these classes.

So now I'm embarrassed to be the only black guy that doesn't do the work and fulfill that stereotype. So I'm not going to class. It's a catch-22, because now I'm still the black kid now that just doesn't come to class, and doesn't do the work on top of that. But for me, it was-- I mean, what am I going to say to these teachers?

So, for the kids you are working with, there may be many external factors that cause pressure that the more privileged students don't have to deal with.

The solution mentioned in the podcast was using the campus library. So there may be resources that you can guide your students to that they may not immediately think of on their own.

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    Your answer does not address the social development of the students, or how they can learn to deal with/overcome the social barrier.
    – Loonuh
    Jul 16, 2015 at 23:56
  • @Loonuh, I was actually going to send you to that podcast myself. I strongly encourage you to listen to it, or to read the transcript. In fact, you might decide to recommend it for your students. No, that podcast does not give you a solution to the problem, but it brings the problem out into the open, and into better focus. To solve a problem, first you have to understand it. Jul 19, 2015 at 6:36

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