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Many educators want to help students of color from low-income neighborhoods get into high-tech careers, and many high-tech companies want workers from diverse backgrounds. But, as anthropologist Elsa Davidson found at a Silicon Valley high school serving “at-risk” Latino and Southeast Asian kids, there are some complicated obstacles to making this happen.

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In 2002, Davidson studied Biotechnology Academy, a public, corporate-supported “school within a school” in San Jose, California. She found that, despite the school’s focus on introducing kids to high-tech career paths, many—particularly among the Latino students—ended up more interested in public-sector work that they saw as “giving back” to their communities.

Davidson describes one student, Armando, who had a successful internship at a biotech company. The company encouraged him to consider a mid-skilled lab job there after graduation, and he knew that it might help him pay for a four-year science degree. Yet, ultimately, Armando was more interested in joining the Marine Corps.

“I wanna have a little bit of struggle,” Armando told Davidson. “…Every man should do at least two-to-four year of service to their country.”

Why did these students dream of public service rather than entrepreneurship? Davidson writes that, despite its focus on exposing kids to the high-tech world, the school also projected another set of expectations. Following a long tradition of public schools for working-class youth, the school emphasized the need for students to overcome their “at risk” status through self-discipline.

The school also demanded that students wear ID badges, follow a strict dress code, and accept video surveillance. Describing the school culture, the principal emphasized the need for discipline and adoption of dominant-culture norms. “You do need to get a college education, and you can’t be talkin’ Ebonics…” he said. “Look at who controls society. Once you get there and you’re an engineer or a professional, do whatever the hell you want.”

The school also asked children to take responsibility for matters outside their individual self-interest. Teachers often reminded students to try hard on standardized tests not just for their own benefit but also to ensure continued state funding for the school. In direct contrast to Silicon Valley’s love of risk and individualism, the school’s implicit message encouraged “fantasies of self-transformation that rendered students providers for the common good, enforcers of discipline, and models of responsible citizenship,” Davidson writes.

At the same time, students’ desire to “give back” also reflected their positive relationships with teachers and staff at the school, as well as other people working in public service-oriented jobs in their communities. Unlike much of the work they saw happening in the corporate sector, these fields offered role models they wanted to emulate.

Davidson writes that students’ sense of connection to a larger community helped neutralize their social marginalization and provided an implicit critique of individualistic, risk-taking high-tech culture. The implication is that if educators and corporations want more “at risk” students to consider high-tech careers, they might want to take a look at the culture of the field.


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Ethnography, Vol. 12, No. 1, Special Issue- Critical Ethnography and the Neoliberal City: The US example (March 2011), pp. 89-113
Sage Publications, Ltd.