You can be anything you want to be.

Except when you can’t. Because you’re brown.

Essentially, this is what students from a local rural high school were told by their guidance counselor during annual career advising appointments.

Fill-in the blank with what some students shared a desire to do, and they were advised—in not so gentle terms—to rethink their goals. Some were told this because of socio-economic reasons. Some for family reasons. And some because of their skin color.

In my freshman college composition course, these realities surfaced when students read an essay by Tanya Barrientos, who struggled with misplaced expectations as a Guatemalan immigrant raised in El Paso by parents who wanted her to speak English and be American. When she wrote that speaking Spanish meant “receiving a condescending smile from the guidance counselor when you said you planned on becoming a lawyer or a doctor,” my students related. They told me so.

And I was shocked.

Hispanics are well represented at the community college where I teach and in the community where I live. The state of Texas in 2014 had over 10 million Hispanics, and the U.S. had 55 million, making Hispanics the nation’s largest ethnic minority. Hispanics account for 17 percent of the nation’s total population. At my college campus, the percentage is slightly higher: 19 percent self-identify as Hispanic.

Hispanics are coming to college; perhaps that’s because they know the institutions can provide comfort in embracing diversity and offering opportunities for growth. With nearly a fourth of Hispanics below the poverty line nationally and a similar percentage lacking health insurance, college is the way “out” and “up” for many students, especially in rural areas. Small class sizes (my freshman Composition I courses have a 25-seat max.) and ready access to resources because of the intimate nature of our campus make this possible.

But only if they don’t listen to a misguided counselor.

Nationally, 16.5% of students enrolled in college were Hispanic. 14% of the Hispanic population age 25 and older has a college degree. Since I started teaching full-time in 2003, I have had the pleasure of instructing many who will add to those numbers and, no doubt, achieve successes they were cautioned to dream against in high school.

When my students communicated their experiences of being told they “couldn’t” because they were brown, I was horrified. But it didn’t take me long to also become proud.

Proud they didn’t listen. Proud they weren’t settling. Proud they were in my class.

And proud that we were in an environment—the cocoon of our rural college—where they could be heard.

Audrey Wick is an English professor at the Schulenburg, Texas, campus of Blinn College.

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