“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” ~ Frederick Douglass
These words deeply resonate with me, and actually helped me realize that I wanted to change the course of my Student Affairs journey. I’ve taken on many of the “traditional” Student Affairs roles at universities: residence life, multicultural affairs, student conduct, etc., most of which involved working with first-year students. Over a few years, however, I felt that my work–while important–was solely focused on supporting those who had already made their way through the initial barriers to higher education. I wanted to focus my efforts on working to increase access for students who might not otherwise believe in their own potential, and help guide them through their first steps into higher education.
I’m now at a local community college where I outreach to local high schools and facilitate New Student Orientations. Being in a community college setting was a bit of a culture shock at first. We often talk about diversity in Student Affairs, but you truly experience this in all facets working at “two-year” institutions. I have worked with students far younger and far older than myself, students who speak different languages, those with varying levels of ability, students who are brand new to the country, student veterans… all of whom have a goal of pursuing a higher education.
When I began going to high schools for outreach events, I witnessed first-hand how access issues play out in education. Depending on the area of the high school I visit, questions from students vary greatly. Some know all of the “right” things to ask in terms of how to transfer, how to study for the placement test, and how to get their AP scores counted. Others have no idea what they want to study, have little hope that they can make it past their first year, or consider college as a backup option in case they can’t get a job after graduation. I’ve been truly challenged on how to empower these students, and give them the tools and resources to successfully make it to their first step into higher education.
That is where the Peer Mentor Program comes into play; I oversee this program at my college, and it has become an invaluable asset during these visits. The Peer Mentors are current students from all backgrounds with different educational goals. Some have joined the college from continuation schools, ones with prestigious reputations, or out of state schools. Some graduated from high school early, while others loathed it and barely got through. I encourage the Peer Mentors to share their own stories; I ask them to be honest about how they found themselves in college, the challenges they’ve experienced, and how they’ve persevered. I’ve learned to let go of the idea that I am the expert with all of the answers, and what it means to truly meet students where they are, both physically and developmentally.
Working at a community college was not an initial option for me when I first started seeking jobs in this field. In all honesty, it wasn’t something that I gave much thought to. Now, however, I can’t picture myself in any other environment. I’ve encountered so many students with inspiring stories of resiliency; they truly keep me on my toes because I never know who I’m going to encounter during a high school visit or orientation workshop. I have to be adaptable and able to resonate with any type of audience on any given day.
As I reflect on the work that I currently do, and how I got to this point, I am reminded of words by C.S. Lewis: “The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles, but to irrigate deserts.”
So, what are we doing as educators- in our current positions, at our current campuses– to transform the educational deserts in our own communities into oases of opportunities?
This post is part of our #comm_college series, which aims to explore experiences developing community college policies and processes that impact the recruitment, retention, and completion of community college students. What human interest stories do you have of community college student resilience, persistence, and success? What about a stories of transition, challenge, or transformation? A variety of SA pros working in student affairs at a community college will share their insights. For more information, please see Kim Irland’s intro post. Be sure to check out other posts in this series!
> BONUS <
Podcast With Brian MacDonald on New Student Orientation & Family Programs