This afternoon, my fiance and I attended Monterey Peninsula College’s commencement ceremony. As I watched several of my former students– and hundreds of students I didn’t know– walk across the amphitheater stage and shake the hands of our administration, I couldn’t help but think about the obstacles each student overcame to get there today.
I started teaching at MPC two years ago. Fresh out of graduate school, I knew that I wanted to teach at a community college, but I wasn’t sure why. One of the main motivations was that I had the minimum qualifications to teach at a community college. I liked the idea of teaching at the college-level with just a MA, and I liked the idea of teaching diverse students. I could tell anyone that community colleges serve a variety of students, but I didn’t yet understand the just how diverse and wonderful the community college student population was. Now I do. Today, I watched students who have struggled with alcoholism, poverty, national disasters, discrimination, war, family pressures, and so much more receive their hard-earned diploma. Many of them are going off to universities, an opportunity only available to them because of the hard work they put into their education and the existence of community colleges.
Community colleges have been getting a lot of slack lately. Across the nation, community colleges boast of a seemingly pathetic “success rate” that varies between 25-40%. That statistic has been used to declare community colleges as a failure; however, the institutional definition of success is simply not reflective of the community college student body. One student who graduated today would not be counted as successful because it took her more than five years to obtain an AA. She dropped out of college during her first attempt because of her struggles learning English; she immigrated to the US from Ukraine after Chernobyl. After dropping out of community college, she decided to master English through a variety of jobs. She returned to community college a decade later with more confidence than before. Now, she is transferring to UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, but she is not counted as successful because of the time it took for her to complete her associate degree.
Her story is not unique. Many of our students don’t follow linear paths to success. Some students need multiple attempts before feeling 100% ready for college. Others require years of developmental education and support from disability resource centers before they can begin taking college-level coursework. As I was reminded at a scholarship reception for Supportive Services students (students with disabilities), for many students, mastering life skills is their ultimate goal– not a obtaining degree. And some students can only take a few courses here and there because they are also working full-time and supporting their family. And yet, statistically speaking, these students are considered unsuccessful.
I realized something else as the students walked up to get their certificates. At the ceremony, students had the opportunity to write brief thank you notes that were read aloud by the announcer. Many of the students thanked God, their families, their teachers, and their friends. But far and away, the majority of these students thanked the student services that helped them along the way: TRiO, EOPS, Supportive Services, counseling, the Math Learning Center, and the English and Study Skills Center (represent!). Sadly, these are the services that are often the first to face the ax of budget cuts, and yet, these are the services that help students to realize their goals and achieve success. Student services are just as valuable as academic coursework, and when budget negotiations start up again, I hope that faculty and staff work together to maintain these services, which are so vital to the progress of our students.
Today reminded me why we need to support open admissions and access to higher education. It reminded me of how much I’ve learned from students these past two years– and of how brave and courageous these students are who stare in the face of the darkest of challenges and then rise above them to pursue their goals. These students are something fierce, and right now, we need to fight to make sure our community college students get the support and resources they need and deserve.