Roma, often referred to as Gypsies, have traditionally kept away from higher education, both in the U.S. and in Europe. Many families home-school their children or pull them out of public schools before they enter high school. Tradition-oriented parents fear their children will be exposed to drugs, sex and a generally tainted environment. Higher education is practically out of the question. Out of several hundred members of the Marks family who live in Wichita, Costello was the first to enter college.
“When you look at the barrier that separates Roma from gadje [non-Roma], there are factors on both sides that keep that barrier in place,” said Ian Hancock, a linguistics professor at the University of Texas at Austin and a Roma. “On the non-Romani side, there’s prejudice. Sometimes it’s negative. Sometimes it’s positive but in the wrong way — romantic. Either way, it makes life in school very uncomfortable for our children.”
While there are thousands of highly educated and well-integrated Roma around the world, many still mistrust non-Roma — an attitude stemming from centuries of discrimination, including slavery in Eastern Europe and genocide during World War II.
To Marks, 60, it became clear that education is the only way for youths in his family to avoid a bleak future.
“If they can break through, the Roma, and get to higher education and go to Harvard or go to Purdue or go to Mizzou or go to Kansas State or whatever school it would be and get the higher education — bam! — some kind of bell would go off, and things would happen for them,” he said. “But the [Roma] culture is so hard to get away from. It’s almost like a black hole. Nothing escapes.”