When Evita Caldwell arrived at St. Louis University as a freshman, she quickly understood a couple of things: First, that she lacked the professional mentors and personal networks that play a major role in upward mobility. Second, that her choice of high school may not have been the right one.
Caldwell, 29, grew up in north St. Louis and attended Vashon High School, in the St. Louis Public Schools system and her father’s alma mater. According to the story "Finding Our Way," James Caldwell had insisted that Evita forego an opportunity to participate in the areawide desegregation program that would have landed her in a higher performing school in the region. Instead, she attended Vashon, a city high school with a poor academic track record and few extracurricular opportunities.
The lack of access to schools with resources is an issue Caldwell and many other St. Louis residents face. St. Louis Public Radio is collaborating with the initiative “Before Ferguson, Beyond Ferguson,” to tell the stories of Caldwell and others who are working to achieve the American dream.
Since graduating from SLU with a bachelor's degree in communications, Caldwell has been unable to secure a full-time job in her career of choice: Journalism. She even worked temporarily for St. Louis On The Air in 2015. Instead, she works as a customer service support representative at Charter Communications.
What follows are excerpts from a conversation between Caldwell and St. Louis Public Radio's Chad Davis.
Davis : What's your idea of the American dream?
Caldwell: I think the American dream varies based on the person. From where I'm from, the paths that I took kind of gave me a taste of the American dream, so we're coming from kind of like these places where I didn't have a lot of networking, contacts. I didn't have a lot of, I guess you could say, mentors who were in the field that I was in, so, for me, the American dream was pretty much getting my college degree, getting a job that would get me the benefits that I would need as an adult such as health benefits, things like that, and make enough money to make a decent living.
Davis: Do you feel like you've reached the American dream?
Caldwell: Not quite, I'm on the way, though. I still recognize that I'm still pretty young and I still have a ways to go, and I still have dues to pay — but not too bad. So far, I think I'm doing pretty OK.
Davis: In what ways are you trying to succeed?
Caldwell: I think I just, in terms of the career field that I chose, its just one of those very competitive and difficult fields. So while I'm not doing exactly what I thought I would be doing, I still kind of stay aligned with some of my talents, but I still do kind of wish that I could go into the field that I actually graduated in, but I also know that that's not always possible. So you always have to know how to adjust to certain situations, which is why, although I started off doing journalism and reporting, after a few years of it not exactly working like I thought it would, I kind of went over into the whole public relations portion of that particular field. And that kind of worked for me for about a year and a half, but I still had to have another job to sustain when I don't have a client.
Davis: Could you give a little background on your family and what their careers were?
Caldwell: So my dad, he actually went to a technical school and got a degree in drafting. He started working for the city of St. Louis very, very young, I think he told me he was like 21 or 22. So he kind of fared pretty well, when it came to that. My mom, she didn't go to college, but years later, in her adult life, she did get a technical degree from Missouri College and she did a little bit in the medical field.
Davis: Do you think the specific high school one attends plays a role in the success of people in St. Louis?
Caldwell: Absolutely. I mean I can tell you in my experience I didn't know how far I was behind until I got to St. Louis University and I can see just all the different types of competition in just not St. Louis but in the country and the world. So I was coming pretty much from all African-American schools my entire life, from preschool until senior year when I graduated from high school. So I actually made the decision myself to go to SLU because I knew it was a different environment from where I was from.
Davis: What do you feel like you were missing and why do you think that was the reason?
Caldwell: I was going to school now with kids who went to suburban schools, kids who went to more wealthier schools, kids who came from private schools and here I saw myself as this African-American girl from Vashon, from north St. Louis and coming from a school where people had already told me, "You went to the wrong schools." So to hear that, I'm like OK, well, if I went to the wrong schools, well let me find the quote, unquote, right school. So I felt that going to SLU would at least get me a little more "umph" behind my name so it wasn't just Vashon.
Davis: What’s next for you then?
Caldwell: Right now I'm kind of in the position in life where I'm not kind of sure what's next, but but whatever it is I'm confident that it will be good.
You can read more about Evita Caldwell and her other family members here.
Before Ferguson, Beyond Ferguson is a storytelling initiative highlighting the challenges St. Louis families have faced over many generations in getting a quality education and securing their purchase on the American dream. It is an outgrowth of Forward Through Ferguson, an organization formed in the wake of social unrest and with the goal of achieving racial equity in our region.
Follow Chad on Twitter @iamcdavis