When I was 12 years old, I first set foot on Kingsborough Community College’s campus in Brooklyn. One of my father’s former students had gotten tenure, and he wanted to show off the college to his favorite professor. I remember getting lost on the way to campus, seeing the sharks in the fish tank, and how proud my father’s student was to work at such a wonderful college. He had been going through some difficult times as a student in my father’s class, but thanks to some encouragement and guidance, he persevered and was looking to pay it forward.
Ten years later, I was excited to get a job as an academic advisor at Kingsborough. It was an opportunity to gain experience in a different area of student affairs. I’d get a chance to put the information I had learned about access to good use. Plus I’d be working at the only CUNY college with a beach! During my interview, the dean spoke with such passion about making sure that every student gets personal attention, that we work to ensure that all the primarily first generation college students we see are made to feel that they belong in college.
When I got my job at Kingsborough, my father told me to seek out his former student for advice if I needed it. My mother’s reaction bothered me. She said that I should get experience and get out, because I would get really sick of people “axeing” me questions. I understood where she was coming from. My brother and I came from a middle class background, and we had been fortunate enough to earn scholarships at a prestigious private high school. She thought I would be more comfortable in a more prestigious institution than in a community college.
What she didn’t understand is that I am not comfortable in that prestigious world. I was grateful for the education I got, but I went to school with people who complained that their life was so unfair because their parents bought them a brand new BMW and wanted them to pay for gas. My first car was a gift too, but it was a beat up old Chevy with duct tape to keep the trunk closed.
I wanted to work in an environment where my skills would be needed. Students at prestigious institutions already have access to amazing educational experiences and excellent support. The students at community colleges are not getting gifts of new cars; they’re worrying that their budget is going to break because the MTA raised their fare by a quarter. These are the students that need the help the most. They are the ones I want to work for: the ones using community college as a point of access, who need a bit of help overcoming the obstacles in their paths.
1.) One student I worked with was a recent immigrant who had expected to be placed in an ESL class, but tested into the credited English class. He was very scared that he wouldn’t be able to handle it.
2.) Another student had been laid off after 20 years as a production worker. She needed to find a way to keep her unemployment benefits (which required her to be a Biology Major) while working on her developmental math courses (which required her to be a Liberal Arts major or she’d lose her TAP).
3.) A third student was responsible for the mental healthcare of his mother and brother, while juggling a challenging course load, his own mental health issues, and coming out.
In each case, these were bright and capable students, who were challenged by their circumstances.
All three of them graduated with high grades. I am certain they wouldn’t have if when they opened up to me about what was going on I seemed uncaring or unwilling to help. Each of these situations required a lot of time and effort on my part to solve. I was honored to have the opportunity to help. Seeing each of them graduate was the greatest feeling in the world.
I’ve worked at Kingsborough for over 8 years now, and my mother is very proud that I work in a place that helps so many first generation students access a quality education. I’ve never tired of the students “axeing” me questions. In truth, I feel privileged to be axed.
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!