In the world before Covid-19 the role of community colleges was integral to the discourse for The Democratic Nomination for the President of The United States. Candidates vying to become the Democratic nominee spoke to the urgency of new funding streams to support these institutions, while outlining the legitimacy and efficiency of these beacons of promise to support Main Street Americans and our newest arrivals to today’s Ellis Island.
While on the campaign trail US Senator Elizabeth Warren of my home state of Massachusetts spoke to her own experience with having to finance her college education as a waitress. Ironically, if Warren were a student at Bunker Hill Community College or Bronx Community College (CUNY) two colleges that I have the honor to serve students at, she likely would have lost her job and her proximity to poverty would be closer today than it was at the start of the semester. Additionally, these sudden hardships coupled with stress could have potentially eroded her psyche and caused her to leave school and never return as it is no secret that our doors are open to all and unfornately far too often due to a myriad of complex circumstances our students often fall through them. Despite these truths Community College students have an uncanny grit and disposition towards the world, akin to Rocky Balboa; however, their stories are often discarded and never make it to the big screen failing to humanize some of our most essential invisible citizens.
Homogenous grouping is almost non-existent in my classes and the varied life experiences that I have come into contact this semester alone have ranged from supporting students who have recently re-entered society after serving long prison stints, quadriplegics, women seeking to flee domestic violence, recent arrivals to the country, former child soldiers, veterans, current high school students, and recent high school graduates. My classes not only look like America, but since Covid-19 they have felt like the invisible scourge of race and class that America has conveniently ignored for decades. Although it took some prodding, Robert F. Kennedy’s voice was an essential instrument to illuminating the pervasive class and racial stratification that has historically marred this country. A divide which continues to espouse systemic oppression and the archetype of political doctrine and rampant evidence of medical apartheid that is most vivid in our center cities and rural communities.
Community Colleges, and subsequently their students, are often on the agenda but run the risk of being tabled if there are more pressing issues to be covered. Damage of the chronic delays and overt denials are evidenced by the sparse funding and subpar investments to support the requisite technology needed to support many of their students in this unprecedented period in history. Nationally, the average age of a community college student is twenty-nine years old. Fueled by a myriad of life experiences, these students have channeled the urgency to want more for themselves and their immediate future — all while giving so much to the larger society in the shadows through jobs in service industries, as caregivers and members of the invisible work force whom we’re so heavily relying on during this crisis.
Our Community Colleges are often home to some of the premier Nursing programs in the region; it would be fair to assume that a number of these current students are balancing families while working in high stress environments, and still scouring to find time between shifts to complete their assignments. Our students, unlike several of the private colleges and universities, don’t receive a laptop or iPad with course information during freshman orientation — something many of our community colleges should consider along with an articulated and robust emergency distance learning plan for future emergencies. Like most college students who hail from and/or live in vulnerable or marginalized communities, our students are experiencing the technological and broadband distribution divide in real time with a large segment hailing from communities that have historically been disregarded as a societal afterthought.
Derrick Bell’s, Faces at The Bottom of The Well: The Permanence of Racism brilliantly expounds on the pervasive and predatory ways racism and class-based animus play out within the American context. How we ignore those in the margins are a direct correlation to our failures as a society. Our community colleges and her students are not only essential workers as bus and truck drivers, nursing assistants, cashiers, formerly incarcerated, community organizers, mothers, fathers, sisters, and brothers. They too, are America. It is critical that in this moment that we not only see them as essential, but we no longer treat them as the sacrificial lamb in this conversation and the ones ahead.
Tony Clark has over 20 years of teaching experience at Community Colleges