Community College Isn’t A Stepping Stone: It’s Where Life Happens

Community college is a space where learners of all ages, income levels, disabilities, career histories, and points of starting over can believe that higher education is meant for them, too.

“Community colleges are America’s best-kept secret, and it is time to let the secret out.” – Dr. Jill Biden

I left my teaching positions last spring to work for a D.C. non-profit that, among many other roles, shapes national education policy. Knowing my background, my boss quickly put me in touch with the director of our institution’s higher education division. The result has been a valuable relationship with someone who not only shares my passion for helping students and faculty, but who regularly invites me to plan and participate in his policy projects.

That’s how I’ve ended up cross-legged next to the cookies and coffee, surveying a room of name badges that put mine to shame. Princeton. Harvard. Yale. Some of these emeriti are gracious to ask about my connection to the project outside of working for the host institution. “I used to be an English and communications professor.” Oh really? Where? (The customary exchange of pedigree.) “A few community colleges,” I tell them. If they’re from my state, they may know the schools. Depending on my mood, I use the word adjunct—a word that typically makes me feel small, that exemplifies a life many of these Ivy League professors have never known.

I listen for hours, scribbling notes and waiting for the opportunity—some cherished bend in the conversation—to interject something about community colleges. Though approximately half of all undergraduate students attend two-year schools, most of the conference table voices hail from prominent research universities. Community colleges provide opportunities for low-income and minority students to take courses at reasonable prices. They serve as anchors of community identity in small towns and accommodate students in the immediate area who cannot attend schools farther away. Still, they often go unmentioned in higher education circles. And still, outside these walls, the stigma persists of community colleges as less valuable than other institutions.

In this room, I think of the disparaging remarks I used to hear as both a community college student and faculty member. Isn’t it like thirteenth grade? Are the professors less qualified than those at a four-year school? Isn’t this just a stepping stone for you to teach at a university? My hope is that more community college professionals will occupy these national policy spaces, and ensure that higher education reform moves forward with their needs in mind.

Why is this important? Because not every student is Johnny Researcher, 18 and adaptable, with glittering Ph.D dreams. Some are parents. Some work the overnight shift and arrive bleary-eyed but determined for the 8am lecture. Some were laid off from their jobs and pressed to explore other options. Some are veterans. Some have failed English 101 three times with other instructors and long for this to be the semester that they finally earn their degree.

Community college, in essence, is where life happens.

I started teaching at 24. I stood up in front of my first class—English literature—and read nervously from the syllabus minimally adapted from our department template. My thumbs left sweaty impressions as I shook. A few girls in the back pierced the air with their giggles. “What does she know?” one of them asked. “She’s not that much older than us.”

“What do I know?” I asked my parents and colleagues, demoralized. “How to write well,” they said. “Start there.” And I did. I forced myself to trust my own knowledge, which built confidence in my subject area that gradually extended to other first-time challenges: plagiarism, insubordination, questions I did not have the answers to, and so on.

During my second year of teaching, I faced a new kind of challenge. Our campus Disability Support Services group briefed me on an incoming student with multiple disabilities who would need an aide in the classroom to transcribe notes. Unlike the K-12 teachers I knew, I had no prior special education training. A boy with autism and a handful of students with ADD who needed extra test time had been the extent of the documented disabilities in my classroom. I worried that I wouldn’t be able to accommodate someone with needs like Marie’s*.

On the first day I found Marie seated and ready in the front row, crisp notebook on her desk, aide by her side. She was not at all what I expected. Marie was a woman in her 60s whose cataracts had caused her to lose most of her sight. She wore hearing aids in both ears to amplify what little sound she could still pick up. Her hands, ravaged by arthritis, could only scribble for short periods of time before her aide took over. When it was Marie’s turn to introduce herself, she explained that she wasn’t here for a degree. She wasn’t here to get a job. She just loved to learn.

At first, the others weren’t sure what to make of Marie. She anchored the classroom like a grandmother no one had asked for. She struggled to understand their teenage slang and referenced eras they had only read about in history books. Sometimes, they all fought with the tenacity of a close family. But by the semester’s end, Marie’s enthusiasm and motivation had spread like wildfire across campus. There goes Marie down the hallway with her cane, saying hi to everyone she knows. There’s Marie in the elevator, poster in hand, chirping about the presentation she’s making later today. Biology, psychology, literature, math—Marie loved them all.

The next few years in the classroom were punctuated by students who similarly transformed from a name in my roll book to someone who stopped my heart. Patricia*, the mother of four who gifted me with a loaf of homemade pumpkin bread and a can of pepper spray because she didn’t like me walking through the parking lot alone at night. Natalie*, recently diagnosed with Lyme Disease, who struggled to verbalize her thoughts in class but, a master of homeopathic remedies, sprinkled essential oils into my tea when I was sick. Tyler*, the most imaginative and lyrical student in our creative writing class, who put his head in his hands one night and confessed that writing was the only thing that kept him from using heroin again.

Though some business-minded administrators are intent on applying a college-as-customer-service, students-as-numbers model to their institutions, any educator worth their salt knows better. Each semester, when 20 new faces enter your classroom, your time with them extends well beyond improving their subject competence. You inherit not just a skill set to be advanced, but an entire academic and personal history that surfaces whenever a student writes of their escape from an abusive home or thanks you for incorporating Jodie Foster’s “coming out” speech into your lesson plan because they’re gay, too. You’re there to meet them where they are. You’re there to catch them if they fall, so long as they are attempting the leap.

Diversity is one of those buzzwords, like rigor and engagement, that makes us feel good in faculty meetings and policy workshops. But in my experience, community college embraces diversity as a way of life. It is a space where learners of all ages, income levels, disabilities, career histories, and points of starting over can believe that higher education is meant for them, too.

*Names have been changed to protect privacy.

Chelsea Cristene is a communications associate and English professor based in Washington, DC. She has been published by the Good Men Project, Salon, xoJane, and MamaMia, and runs a film review blog, Catch Up, with fellow Role Reboot contributor Telaina Eriksen. Find her on Twitter.

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