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Illustration by Oscar Bray

An Escape from Class Inequalities, but an Unequal Chance at Education

Coming from a working class family, education is regarded as the pathway to success, yet, like life, it is an unequal battle for power where wealthy people aim at achieving something remarkable with us just struggling to survive.

Nov 9, 2019

On Jan. 2, 2017, I received a letter that would change my life forever— an offer from United World College National Committee in Vietnam to study at UWC Costa Rica, one of the 19 campuses in a renowned global high school system aiming to use a diverse education as a means for peace-building and social change.
My heart skipped a beat when seeing the word “Congratulations” and I immediately screamed for my grandparents. We were all crying happy tears, for the first person in the household to study abroad on a generous scholarship and to have the chance to go to college. I went to bed that night feeling hopeful for the future that my family and I may live one day, yet I never expected it to be such a remarkable turning point for my perspective on education.
Before I knew it, my extended family threw a big party, killed multiple chickens and bought too much food, and invited many of our friends, most of whom had barely finished secondary education. I recall one of the many conversations during the party, “finally, a kid from us can escape.”
The event was exciting, but also something I have lingering thoughts about. Looking back, I wonder why everyone was so thrilled about me studying abroad. What did she mean by escape? What were we running away from? Was it poverty? Vietnam’s educational system? Or our own powerlessness when seeing our lives — and our children’s future — constrained by a lack of money?
I come from a working class family with my grandparents’ little savings going to their one-bedroom house, monthly medicines and their grandchildren’s schooling. My father worked as a contract-based driver and rarely interacted with me and my mother has been a garment seller for over two decades.
None of them have gone to college. None of them can speak English. Yet, they are still aware of the importance of education, a degree with some employable skills and work ethics, in an increasingly degree-requiring labor market.
“He went to a very decent college, and he’s now working as our assistant after being unemployed for a year,” my father would explain after returning home from driving for three consecutive days as a container driver. “That poor kid failed to make the most out of his education,” he said before lighting up his twelfth cigarette that morning.
For the longest time, those whom I am close with have regarded education as the pathway to success and well-being. One can be upwardly mobile by making the most out of their education.
I think of power as the ability of one to form an argument, claim an identity and become upwardly mobile in terms of intellectuality, finances and networks. To achieve one of those three elements, one can turn to education — an institutionalized platform implemented as a universal public good, readily of service and whose quality is ensured. For the working class, education is a battle for power; it’s supposedly the most available and convenient opportunity for anyone, regardless of one’s status and background, to elevate their potential. Nevertheless, that was not what I have seen.
Besides recognizing the power of education, I also understand, and despise, the socially destructive power dynamics in education. My family is hyper-aware of our disadvantaged position when trying to accomodate my and my sibling’s needs as students, because sustaining our education is a financial burden — from fees to extra classes, our educational expenses extend beyond just tuition.
For a country that works so hard to ensure extremely low tuition fees, we fail to acknowledge and address on the large scale the existence of our education’s shadow market — run by people in authority, like teachers and school administrators — that allows kids from well-off families to continue being well-off, and kids like me to continue suffering.
In addition, highly useful opportunities like scholarships, fellowships, exchange programs and extracurriculars are often only available to students from certain specialized schools, the middle upper classes. Such students are prepared to succeed and those like me are expected to be ordinary. Ironically and painfully, to escape poverty, we need education; but by letting our children participate in education, we are daily reminded of our poverty to the extent that we internalize and normalize that very social position.
When receiving the acceptance letters from UWC and, two years later, NYU Abu Dhabi, I was struck with the realization that everything is possible. This is power — the only means for many to reclaim the power that has been long neglected by our unequal societies.
Education is undoubtedly a significant tool for those seeking a way to overcome their individual and family struggles. At the moment it is still operating as a paradox — the main escape from poverty is also the one thing we can’t afford.
Now I am concerned with how privileged I am to be here, writing this personal article and having my voice respected. People like me don’t usually get to do this. Although my struggle is not uncommon, my story is uniquely mine.
I have become upwardly mobile by successfully taking advantage of the very few educational resources available to disadvantaged students. I am one individual out of the many hard-working students who deserve much more than what they have now.
We have heard so much about how education is a crucial path to level the playing field, but getting access to high-quality education is a labyrinth in itself that we have to consciously navigate. Students are exposed to the truth: the system in place is not working in their favor, and that is why many of them start giving up, dropping out, or just drowning in their own internalization of unjust classist identities.
Education reflects our society, not only in what is taught but also in what structures are manifested and perpetuated. Education, like life, is an unequal battle for power where wealthy people aim at achieving something remarkable while the working class just wants to survive.
Khoi Ngo is a contributing writer. Email him at
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