By Katherine Bielawa Stamper
It happened during a mid-semester conference. I returned the exam to my student. She started to cry.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
She looked up with tears in her eyes and said, “I did so poorly in high school.”
She had earned an A. This was someone whose high school record did not point towards college. It pointed towards work, so she got a job. She was 26 when I met her at the community college.
Why do I share this? It’s college acceptance season. Many high school seniors are basking in the glow of those thick envelopes received, trying to divine which place is the “best place” to attend. Friends’ children are weighing offers from fine schools in Boston, Chicago, New York, Washington, and right here in granola crunchy Vermont. They deserve to be congratulated for their hard work.
CVU’s “School Profile for Colleges” from 2010-2011indicates that 70 percent of its 2010 graduates went on to college. These figures encompass two- and four-year schools. College is not for everyone. Still, I am left wondering about the remaining 30 percent and their particular aspirations.
Income and employment rates are directly impacted by educational levels. Continued education, whether college or a training program (e.g., apprenticeships), make sense in a competitive economy.
As someone who teaches at community college, I encounter many non-traditional students. Some are autodidacts, just now ready to re-enter a classroom. Others are like rough diamonds requiring a bit of polishing to reveal the potential below.
Who are these students? They are often older and have spent time in the military or working world. Many are parents. Some experienced difficulties during adolescence which interfered with their ability to focus on learning. Family stresses, economic insecurity, experimentation with substances or underlying depression often emerge as threads in their stories. Some just weren’t ready. That doesn’t necessarily mean they weren’t smart.
High school proved less-than-enthralling for many of these non-traditionals. Their names may not have appeared on the honor roll or the National Honor Society’s roster. They may have been up late working or self-educating—reading books teachers didn’t assign. They were, perhaps, too tired or pre-occupied to be fully present in high school algebra class, much less calculus. Some experienced home lives where the word “college” was taboo.
It doesn’t take long to realize it’s difficult to pay rent while earning minimum wage. If the choice is to get a second job or take night classes, the latter makes more sense when considering long-term earnings.
One of my students worked as a mechanic, a fine and respectable position. I used our conference to say I believed he was probably a great mechanic. I then took the leap of expressing my belief that he had the intellectual ability to also be an extraordinary student. This is someone who earned a G.E.D.
Encouraging, guiding and speaking to the possibilities are what I try to do. This is the gift my teachers gave me.
Recounting my own high school experience, I worked hard and achieved good grades. I also silently judged classmates who appeared less-than-inspired to learn. Seeing my parents work exhausting jobs with their limited educations was motivation enough for me to study.
Knowing what I know now, I wonder about my classmates whose names were not listed on the honor roll or who weren’t invited to our National Honor Society induction. I wonder how many eventually went to college.
I offer hearty congratulations to our seniors with college acceptances in hand. You are to be commended for your hard work.
To those seniors on a different path, taking a side route, investing time to figure out who you are, I say, embrace each experience, each job, each person you meet and each book you read as an opportunity to learn.
Your gut will tell you when or if it’s time to return to school. If you do return, your life experience will inform classroom dialogue, offering insights that might never have occurred to your more “traditional” classmates.
Where is the student who cried when I returned her exam with an A? She’s studying, full-time, at an elite liberal arts college—on scholarship.
It’s never too late.