Community College Magic

(submitted to a CC publication in 2005 – never published)

I have to confess that I am not a life-long community college advocate.  As a young high school student, I spurned my parents’ suggestion that I attend the community college in my home town and instead, enlisted in the United States Navy, only to attend one of their schools of health sciences, which has recently been renamed an Armed Forces Community College.  More recently, when I found myself a single mother with 2 small children, old skills and the need for a job that paid a living wage, I entirely ignored the options that the local community college offered (even when my small children suggested that I consider them).  Even later, when I found a job advertised in the newspaper at the local community college, I looked at the opportunity as one of a stepping stone to a university or other institution…and then something magical happened.  The community college hired me.

I like to tell people that now, after more than 3 years; I think I actually understand the complexity of the institution for which I work, and while I am being somewhat facetious, there is more than a bit of truth in that statement. The wonders of the opportunities that abound within the walls of the community college are still unfolding for me, like each year’s new bloom on a prized rose bush.

Several weeks ago I attended a function not unlike the many functions administrators attend at institutions acrossAmerica.  This recognition dinner was held to honor students in a career ladder program at a local hospital who sponsors their employees through health career programs, and in to better jobs within the system.  I happily chatted away with colleagues, students and others and waited my turn to get in line for the perfunctory chicken dinner.  I was prepared to make small talk, acknowledge the hard work of the students as well as the contributions of all of the partners involved in the project and then make a hasty retreat after sampling the decadent chocolate dessert that I spied on the middle buffet table.  Halfway through the 5 (thin) layers of the chocolate delight, the speakers took the podium to begin the recognition portion of the program. Acknowledgement of the participants, thanks all around for the sponsors, decision-makers and others provided a steady rhythm of nodding heads and applause – it was the standard fare of recognition dinners, until one of my colleagues took the podium.

Claudette is a Senior Vice President and campus CEO who has a long resume of higher education experience.  Although my working experiences with her were minimal, all the interactions I had with her had left favorable impressions upon me as to her abilities as an executive administrator. That night, however; I was to learn much more about her, and reconnect with myself.

She opened as many speakers do, with an anecdotal story about her early days in academe.  She recalled her time as an academic advisor, and shared that those experiences helped her to develop great respect for students in the various health career programs.  She went on to describe the community college as an institution of second chances; as a place for anyone with a dream, or desire to better themselves through education or training.  As she spoke, I watched her intently, and realized that this woman was not reading a scripted recognition dinner speech – she was speaking from her heart.  My mind drifted from her words to last Spring’s commencement ceremony, when a number of graduates from a local long term care agency walked across the stage to accept their diplomas as LPNs and RNs.  Those graduates, most of whom were 40 or older, came out of jobs as nurse aides, dietary clerks and housekeepers and worked harder than they imagined they could to balance work, families, clinical rotations, shift work, studying and tests.  Many were sure at any given time that they would never make it; others never allowed those thoughts to enter their minds.  All of them plugged along taking one or two classes at a time – seeing the long road ahead of them, meeting set backs and obstacles, but persisting toward their goals.  I was one of the administrators who worked with this group of students, and after 2 years, felt as though I knew them as more than students on a roster.  They seemed almost like family members whom I had watched, cheered and worried along their paths. At graduation as each of their names were announced, I found myself digging for a tissue to catch the tears that welled up in my eyes as I watched these proud graduates shake the president’s hand and accept their diplomas.  Their smiles were not giddy; their eyes solemn and their steps, steady and sure.  They knew in the core of their beings that they had survived something that had seemed to them at one time, an impossible dream. They had arrived at a destination that they often feared would never come.  They were changed by their journeys, and so was I.

I knew at that moment that I was not working for the community college in order to provide my resume with a stepping stone. I had been given a rare glimpse into the heart of the community college, and knew that I had found my place in academe.

As Claudette stepped away from the podium, the applause returned me to the moment, and I remembered why it is so important for me to attend these functions. Sure, the president wouldn’t long tolerate an absent administrator, and yes – it’s easier to manage partnerships if you have some friendly relations with people due to numerous interactions, and of course, everyone appreciates a dinner without dishes to wash every once in awhile, but none of those things really matter when compared to the real reasons for attending:  the students.  As I looked around the room, I saw clerks and aides, transport personnel and valet parking attendants; I saw new immigrants seeking previously unattainable education opportunities and women in their late forties looking to better themselves and their family’s standard of living.  I also saw hope.  I recognized in that group of employees, the hope for a second chance that Claudette spoke of, and that I had seen come to fruition in the group of nurse graduates last Spring.

After the formal program, several students approached me to ask about their programs, job opportunities after graduation and other college-related questions.  One woman, easily in her late-forties or early fifties, put her hand on my arm, and told me that she was ready to walk away from the program until I came and talked to them. (I make an information presentation to interested employees about the health career programs before they sign on for the sponsorship program)  She thanked me for my candor, and said that she could tell that I really cared that they did something that was right for each of them, and that they had the right information to make those decisions. She also thanked me for encouraging her to believe in herself, by believing in her ability to make this journey.

As I walked across the parking lot to my car, I smiled to myself remembering how foolish I had been to minimize the opportunities at a community college.  Wonderful, life-changing events occur in my community college and in community colleges across the country every day.  For me, the community college experience has been life-altering in a magical way – allowing me to see hope emerge from hopelessness; new opportunities grow in fields long barren and sunlight shine in the darkest corners.  I know now why administrators like Claudette , who could long ago have moved on to other, more prestigious institutions, remain loyal to the community college:  no riches, recognition or rewards could ever compare with the eyes of a grateful student who came to your institution as a last resort, and got a second chance.  No institutional affiliation can compete with the pride we feel when new Americans get a chance to begin again and when displaced homemakers or single mothers are finally able to stand on their own and support their families.  The community college is a great place for second chances – for students and for professional careers, and I am grateful that my career was given the chance to experience the magic that is the community college.

Authors note: I left the community college in late 2006 due to a reorganizational maelstrom.  I missed working with the students and faculty there for a long time. and though the initial “sting” of that separation has finally  diminished, I remain a major fan of the work and people at our nation’s community colleges.

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