Traversing two D.C.s, from Dunbar High to Georgetown University

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly said a classmate attended Georgetown Prep. It was Georgetown Day School. This version has been corrected.


Johnathon Carrington, valedictorian at Dunbar High School, laughs with family and friends after his school's graduation ceremony at Howard University in June 2013. He recently finished his first year at Georgetown University. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

When Johnathon Carrington makes a trip home to visit his mother or get what he considers a decent haircut, the Georgetown University student takes a G2 Metrobus that carries him four miles east across a divide that separates the city where he goes to school from the city where he grew up.

He climbs aboard in one Washington, where he sees the uniform as polo shirts and Sperry Top-Siders, where he often feels on the outside of things, where school is a struggle and he wonders whether he can keep up.

He disembarks in the other Washington, where he said his Nike Air Jordans don’t stand out, where a drive-by shooting last year injured 13 people outside his mother’s apartment complex, where he was the high school valedictorian to whom top grades came easily.

The return trip from North Capitol Street to campus can be stressful. “There’s not a lot of people I can relate to,” Carrington says. “There’s not a lot of people who come from backgrounds like mine.”

The national discussion about improving college graduation rates among poor, minority and first-generation students largely centers on the quality of K-12 schools, the affordability of higher education and other concrete issues that public policies can address.

Carrington’s experience at Georgetown offers a glimpse of another, far less tangible challenge that students often face as they navigate college life: finding a sense of belonging.

A year ago, in the days before his graduation from the District’s Dunbar High School, Carrington worried that his education in the city’s public schools had not prepared him for Georgetown’s academic rigor. “I don’t think I’m going to fail everything,” he said at the time. “But I think I’m going to be a bit behind.”

He was right. The quick pace and heavy workload of his first two Georgetown classes last summer were a “wake-up call,” he said, and only intensified during the next two semesters. Math, which he thought was a personal strength, has proved tough. Time management has been a hurdle, so he enrolled in an economics class this summer to lighten his load in the fall.

And he doesn’t want to talk about his grade-point average.

“I was, of course, disappointed in myself,” Carrington said. “It really does affect your confidence when you’re doing bad in school and you’re not used to it. I know I’ve got to do a lot of things different this year.”

Carrington did not anticipate the culture shock he felt outside the classroom, the trouble he had fitting in. After spending his life in communities and in schools filled with African Americans and children from low-income families, he’s now part of a tiny minority across town, where he feels out of place.

“I can see it, the way people look at me,” he said. “I think they’re thinking, ‘Why is he dressed like that?’ ”

From his perspective, it’s hard to imagine relating to most people at Georgetown, even those students who grew up in the District. He recounted meeting one student who noticed his Capitals T-shirt and asked whether he was local; she told him that she went to Georgetown Day School. He immediately thought they could not connect because they were from separate worlds.

“We were two different people,” he said.

He lost his appetite from stress, he said. A self-described introvert, he has become quieter. He wears headphones as he walks through campus. He takes the bus home when he needs a barber.

“I don’t trust anyone who’s going to cut my hair in Georgetown,” he said.

Other D.C. high school graduates say they have had similar experiences at their colleges.

“I did have that feeling where I looked around and felt there is not anyone who looks like me,” said Sharnita James, Dunbar’s 2009 valedictorian, who graduated in May from the University of Delaware.

Her freshman year, she was one of a few women — and the only black woman — who was majoring in electrical engineering. She eventually switched to mechanical engineering, graduating alongside one other black woman.

She made it through, she said, by finding a core group of friends who studied together and encouraged one another. And she sought out organizations that introduced her to other minority engineering students and successful professionals. “I was able to see, if they can do it, so can I,” she said.

Like Carrington, James said she didn’t feel academically prepared for college work. She earned A’s and B’s in high school, including in Advanced Placement calculus, but had to retake her first semester of college calculus after failing the first time around.

She said she went from barely studying in high school to putting in long hours at night, adding that she didn’t allow herself to think about dropping out. “My mind-set was, no matter what, I’m going to graduate.”

Now she is working at a summer science camp for D.C. high school students; eventually, she wants to build movie sets and develop special effects. “I feel as though I just achieved a big step and now I’m just trying to figure out where to go next,” she said.

Carrington, who is part of a Georgetown program for first-generation college students that is meant to help ease the transition from high school, said there are people he can turn to: his adviser, who urges him to smile more; the new friend, who hails from the South Side of Chicago and who understands where Carrington is coming from; a fellow Georgetown student and D.C. native who is a couple of years older and knows how to play the card game Tonk, a popular pastime in public-school cafeterias across the District.

Amid his early struggles, there was a moment this spring when Carrington considered transferring to a different school. “I felt as though there’s really no point in me being there,” he said.

Besides feeling as if he couldn’t relate to other students, he said, school didn’t seem to be preparing him for the career he envisions. A sports fan and business major, he wants to become general manager of a professional sports team, ideally the Nationals or the Redskins.

The moment of doubt eventually passed. He has been exchanging e-mails with Georgetown’s football coach about working for the team during the upcoming season, a way to build his sports-management chops.

“I’d rather go to the best school and be challenged and learn, rather than go to a school where I can keep my same habits from high school,” Carrington said. “I realized I have to take initiative in some things. I have to make Georgetown cater to me. I have to find my path.”

His mother, Valerie Carrington, said she is proud that her son made it through his first year.

“People keep asking me, is he going to quit? Did he quit? No, he’s determined,” she said. “Do a follow-up in three years about how he’s made it. That’s what I’m waiting for. That’s what I’m really waiting for.”

by Emma Brown

When Johnathon Carrington makes a trip home to visit his mother or get what he considers a decent haircut, the Georgetown University student takes a G2 Metrobus that carries him four miles east across a divide that separates the city where he goes to school from the city where he grew up.

He climbs aboard in one Washington, where he sees the uniform as polo shirts and Sperry Top-Siders, where he often feels on the outside of things, where school is a struggle and he wonders whether he can keep up.

He disembarks in the other Washington, where he said his Nike Air Jordans don’t stand out, where a drive-by shooting last year injured 13 people outside his mother’s apartment complex, where he was the high school valedictorian to whom top grades came easily.

The return trip from North Capitol Street to campus can be stressful. “There’s not a lot of people I can relate to,” Carrington says. “There’s not a lot of people who come from backgrounds like mine.”

The national discussion about improving college graduation rates among poor, minority and first-generation students largely centers on the quality of K-12 schools, the affordability of higher education and other concrete issues that public policies can address.

Carrington’s experience at Georgetown offers a glimpse of another, far less tangible challenge that students often face as they navigate college life: finding a sense of belonging.

A year ago, in the days before his graduation from the District’s Dunbar High School, Carrington worried that his education in the city’s public schools had not prepared him for Georgetown’s academic rigor. “I don’t think I’m going to fail everything,” he said at the time. “But I think I’m going to be a bit behind.”

He was right. The quick pace and heavy workload of his first two Georgetown classes last summer were a “wake-up call,” he said, and only intensified during the next two semesters. Math, which he thought was a personal strength, has proved tough. Time management has been a hurdle, so he enrolled in an economics class this summer to lighten his load in the fall.

And he doesn’t want to talk about his grade-point average.

“I was, of course, disappointed in myself,” Carrington said. “It really does affect your confidence when you’re doing bad in school and you’re not used to it. I know I’ve got to do a lot of things different this year.”

Carrington did not anticipate the culture shock he felt outside the classroom, the trouble he had fitting in. After spending his life in communities and in schools filled with African Americans and children from low-income families, he’s now part of a tiny minority across town, where he feels out of place.

“I can see it, the way people look at me,” he said. “I think they’re thinking, ‘Why is he dressed like that?’ ”

From his perspective, it’s hard to imagine relating to most people at Georgetown, even those students who grew up in the District. He recounted meeting one student who noticed his Capitals T-shirt and asked whether he was local; she told him that she went to Georgetown Day School. He immediately thought they could not connect because they were from separate worlds.

“We were two different people,” he said.

He lost his appetite from stress, he said. A self-described introvert, he has become quieter. He wears headphones as he walks through campus. He takes the bus home when he needs a barber.

“I don’t trust anyone who’s going to cut my hair in Georgetown,” he said.

Other D.C. high school graduates say they have had similar experiences at their colleges.

“I did have that feeling where I looked around and felt there is not anyone who looks like me,” said Sharnita James, Dunbar’s 2009 valedictorian, who graduated in May from the University of Delaware.

Her freshman year, she was one of a few women — and the only black woman — who was majoring in electrical engineering. She eventually switched to mechanical engineering, graduating alongside one other black woman.

She made it through, she said, by finding a core group of friends who studied together and encouraged one another. And she sought out organizations that introduced her to other minority engineering students and successful professionals. “I was able to see, if they can do it, so can I,” she said.

Like Carrington, James said she didn’t feel academically prepared for college work. She earned A’s and B’s in high school, including in Advanced Placement calculus, but had to retake her first semester of college calculus after failing the first time around.

She said she went from barely studying in high school to putting in long hours at night, adding that she didn’t allow herself to think about dropping out. “My mind-set was, no matter what, I’m going to graduate.”

Now she is working at a summer science camp for D.C. high school students; eventually, she wants to build movie sets and develop special effects. “I feel as though I just achieved a big step and now I’m just trying to figure out where to go next,” she said.

Carrington, who is part of a Georgetown program for first-generation college students that is meant to help ease the transition from high school, said there are people he can turn to: his adviser, who urges him to smile more; the new friend, who hails from the South Side of Chicago and who understands where Carrington is coming from; a fellow Georgetown student and D.C. native who is a couple of years older and knows how to play the card game Tonk, a popular pastime in public-school cafeterias across the District.

Amid his early struggles, there was a moment this spring when Carrington considered transferring to a different school. “I felt as though there’s really no point in me being there,” he said.

Besides feeling as if he couldn’t relate to other students, he said, school didn’t seem to be preparing him for the career he envisions. A sports fan and business major, he wants to become general manager of a professional sports team, ideally the Nationals or the Redskins.

The moment of doubt eventually passed. He has been exchanging e-mails with Georgetown’s football coach about working for the team during the upcoming season, a way to build his sports-management chops.

“I’d rather go to the best school and be challenged and learn, rather than go to a school where I can keep my same habits from high school,” Carrington said. “I realized I have to take initiative in some things. I have to make Georgetown cater to me. I have to find my path.”

His mother, Valerie Carrington, said she is proud that her son made it through his first year.

“People keep asking me, is he going to quit? Did he quit? No, he’s determined,” she said. “Do a follow-up in three years about how he’s made it. That’s what I’m waiting for. That’s what I’m really waiting for.”

Emma Brown writes about D.C. education and about people with a stake in schools, including teachers, parents and kids.
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