By Anne Pharr

An Invitation to Consider Community College

After teaching in the community college environment for many years, I realize it has been the perfect place for me to continue growing, not only in my academic discipline, but in my faith. Yet teaching at a two-year institution — much less an open-admission one — was not something I even knew to consider as a graduate student. I offer a few reasons Christ-following faculty might teach in the context of the community college in the hope that you, readers of The Well, might consider whether you sense such a call.

As my husband and I prepare for our own children to go to college — and are overwhelmed by the many choices available to them (not to mention the wildly varying price points), I have been reminded of how different my own college selection process was.

During my late high school years, I applied only to one college — a private, denominationally-affiliated university to which both of my older sisters had gone, and where my best childhood friend and roommate-to-be was also planning to attend. My parents were so committed to this choice that I never even visited any other schools. I applied; I was accepted; I attended, and that was that.

Now that I am a mom of a high school junior and senior, I’ve reflected, first of all, on what a blessing it was to have attended this school. I have no idea how my parents were able to foot the bill, and although it is 30 years after the fact, I have found myself thanking them again for the sacrifices I know they must have made to make this experience possible for me.

What I’ve also been surprised at, though, is that I was not encouraged to consider any other options during the college selection process. The school where I applied was located seven hours from where I had grown up — a town that was home to a large state university as well as a small Christian college, with a handful of community colleges in the surrounding areas. While some of my high school friends attended the university there, I don’t recall knowing anyone went to any of the nearby colleges.

For whatever reason, these options just didn’t seem to be on anyone’s radar — including mine.  So I went happily to Baylor and had such a positive experience that I stayed on for graduate school.

As I neared the end of completing my master’s and began looking for where I might land my first teaching job, I followed a similar pattern to my college selection process, limiting my exploration to only Christian universities. Eventually, I accepted a tenure-track position in the English department at another denominationally affiliated school.

A few years later, when my husband and I married, his work took us to a new state, and the job selection process began again. After spending one year teaching at a private high school and realizing that I am more suited for working with college students, I decided to apply for a part-time position at a nearby open-admission community college, where I was hired as adjunct faculty. After teaching remedial writing courses during my first semester, I fell in love with my students as well as the school, and I continued off and on in that part-time role while raising our son and daughter.

As our children grew older, I decided it was time to apply for a full-time position at this same community college. It was while writing the cover letter that I had an epiphany of sorts, realizing some of the differences between my own experiences in college and those of my students, but also recognizing how much I enjoy creating a place for these specific students to continue growing as thinkers, writers, readers, and people. The gratitude I had — and continue to have — for this job is only intensified by the fact that I never even planned to teach at a community college. Instead, the job sort of found me, something I view not as some kind of happy accident, but instead as a result of God’s providential guidance into a role that never even crossed my mind while I was looking towards — and praying about — what I would do after completing my graduate work.

If the opportunity to focus on teaching appeals to you, then the community college might be a good fit.

It’s commonly known that faculty positions at four-year institutions include an expectation for research and publication throughout the span of one’s career. For some, this can be an appealing part of a professor’s work and serve as both motivation and reward for continuing to expand their expertise in their academic discipline.

For others, however, the desire to teach college students may have more to do with cultivating an environment of learning, a place where those students can — and perhaps are even excited to — increase their knowledge about a particular academic discipline. If this is the case for you, teaching at a two-year institution might be worth considering, since many community colleges emphasize teaching over research.

Along with the focus on teaching comes a lower student-to-teacher ratio. I have found that this increases my capacity for getting to know some of my students better than might be possible with larger numbers. And those relationships, in my experience, are where I am often able to do my best work — not only in helping students master the course content and skills, but also in mentoring and encouraging them along the way.

If you are drawn to the idea of helping make a college degree more accessible to students who might be less likely to have that opportunity, then the community college could be for you.

Because I began teaching at a community college without ever having attended one myself, it took some time for me to gain an understanding of the student population at my own institution and how it differs from what I had experienced during my time at the four-year universities where I’d worked or attended. But as individuals in my classes began to share their backgrounds with me, I realized that — for many of them — there can be stark differences between our journeys to and through higher education.

Although the first courses I taught were remedial writing classes, I was not aware that so many of our students arrive in need of additional preparation before enrolling in college-level courses.  Whether it is in math, writing, or reading — or perhaps a combination — anywhere from 30-60% of the students at my college are underprepared in some way. Nationally, 67% of community college students take one or more developmental courses.

I was also surprised to discover that, at most community colleges, a significant proportion of students are the first in their family to either attend or graduate from college. Nationally, 36% of community college students are first-generation; at my own college, approximately 49% of our 10,000+ students fall into that category.

A third distinctive of community college students is that many experience some degree of economic instability while working towards their college degree. 44% of of the students at my own institution receive need-based aid, with 20% falling into a category known as "zero expected family contribution." This means that — according to the FAFSA — these students’ families are not able to offer them any financial support. What is especially sobering is that the average parent adjusted gross income for these students is $19,425, while their average adjusted gross income is $13,352. In other words, around 1 of every 5 students in my classes could be living very close to Federal Poverty Guidelines. At the national level, a recent survey of community college students revealed that nearly half of them encountered financial difficulties while in school.

It stands to reason that students who fall into one or more of these categories are at a greater risk of not completing their degrees, and research certainly bears this out. Yet these are the same individuals for whom a college degree can make a significant difference in the trajectory of their lives by creating opportunities for better wages, better work conditions, and better health benefits. As I’ve seen firsthand, these opportunities can benefit not only the students, but their families as well as the broader community.

If your own background includes attending a community college, learning that you were academically under-prepared, being a first-generation student, and/or facing economic challenges while working towards your degree — then you may have special gifts to offer community college students.

Part of my growth has involved recognizing my own limitations as a professor to community college students. The fact that my experiences in higher education look different from my students’ might seem like an advantage to some, but it actually means I must be especially vigilant to learn about and communicate appreciation for my students’ backgrounds, experiences, and abilities. When I don’t take the time to do that, I am likely to operate from my own assumptions and biases, which can lead me to make decisions that may not be the best for my students.

Although my own college journey included struggling with imposter syndrome — mostly during graduate school and my early years of teaching — the fact is that I have felt reasonably comfortable throughout the majority of my time in higher education. Sure, I studied hard, but I never experienced — or even expected — earning anything other than good grades. Sometimes it took awhile for me to catch on to the less obvious “rules” of higher education, but I never felt overwhelmed by the sheer volume of jargon or sometimes unnecessarily intricate processes I encountered. And yes, I lived on a shoestring budget — especially during graduate school — but I always knew my parents’ financial support was a phone call away, should an unexpected need arise. Yet for many of my students, especially those who are educationally under-prepared, first generation, and/or economically disadvantaged, the academic rigor, financial obligations, and unfamiliar norms they encounter in higher education cause them tremendous levels of discomfort. The degree of intimidation or outright fear they can experience may even become debilitating and undercut their ability to engage in behaviors that lead to success.

Knowing this, I can — and should — continue to work hard at getting to know my students, at valuing their backgrounds and experiences, and at learning the most effective methods for welcoming them into the college environment and equipping them to become the best thinkers, readers, and writers they can be. Part of that involves sharing my own stories of struggle in college. But there are times when I simply can’t make my story look like theirs. And this fact can put me at a disadvantage.

Encountering college personnel who have successfully navigated some of the same challenges they are facing can have a powerful impact on students.  Especially for those who may doubt their ability or wonder whether they really belong in higher education, having the opportunity to learn from a broad range of faculty, including, and perhaps especially professors whose life experiences bear similarities to theirs can reinforce at-risk students’ ability to see themselves as capable, competent members of the higher education community.  So when my students need extra encouragement to believe they are capable of achieving their academic goals, I can — and should — do my best to offer it to them. But sometimes the message “you belong” is more convincing when it comes from someone who may have struggled to believe that message for him/herself.   

If you are drawn towards a context in which you can actively live out the belief that each one of us — regardless of our unique backgrounds and abilities — bears God’s image, then the community college might be for you.

In deepening my understanding of the students with whom I work, I can easily make the mistake of paying attention only to what puts them at risk for achieving their academic goals. But when I focus primarily on what some might perceive as deficits, I am limiting my view to the labels that may or may not apply to these students.

What I continue to learn, though, is that my students bring important strengths with them into their college journey. Many times, their unique life experiences have not only helped them develop remarkable persistence, but have also equipped them with the knowledge needed to make invaluable contributions to the discourse so common in institutions of higher education — contributions that their more privileged peers and faculty simply cannot offer. Contributions that are vitally important for all of us to hear, and contributions that I, as a community college educator, can actively facilitate.

This view — that community college students are so much more than any label or category we might be inclined to apply — is deeply rooted in the Scriptural principle that each one of us — my students, my colleagues, and me — is a person created in the image of God. Each of us has divine fingerprints all over us. And each of us — without exception — has something valuable to offer to our world. Something that will be missing unless we live out our unique, God-given identity.

This biblical perspective of each person’s inherent worth is the reason I encourage especially Christ-following faculty to consider offering their gifts within the community college environment.  These messages — “you belong,” “you have something uniquely important to offer the world,” “you are worthy of being valued and equipped” — these are words each one of my students need to hear. They are words that each one of my colleagues needs to hear. They are words I need to hear. Rooted deeply in the biblical truth of God’s love for every person, these are messages I have somehow been given the privilege of sharing with my students.  Though I am barred from sharing my personal faith in the classroom, my hope is that these messages are seeds that, in time, will bear fruit by laying a foundation that God does, indeed, love each of my students, and that He longs to be reconciled to them through Christ.

On the first day of each semester, I often tell my students how much I loathed essay-writing when I was in school, adding that if anyone had let me know I would become a composition professor, I never would have believed them. My response would have been similar had someone told me I’d be teaching at a community college — not because I would have disliked the idea, but simply because it had never crossed my twenty-four-year-old-graduate-student mind.

I’m so glad to have been given the opportunity to work in this environment, where I get to play a small part in dismantling long-entrenched inequalities and do the kingdom work of trying to equip, encourage, and affirm the worth of every student who enters my classroom. And my hope is that others who are exploring the possibility of working in higher education will consider whether they might be called to offer their gifts in the context of the community college.

About the Author

A graduate of Baylor University, Anne Pharr has taught English and First Year Seminar at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, Tennessee, since 1998.  In addition to her teaching responsibilities, Anne serves as program coordinator for the First Year Seminar course and, along with some of her colleagues, has developed a college-wide initiative, Partners for Student Potential (PSP), whose mission is to deepen and broaden faculty and staff awareness of the challenges and strengths represented by under-resourced students.  Current PSP activities include gathering and sharing PSCC student stories at the Walking the Hero's Journey blog as well as interviewing PSCC faculty about their own college struggles in the Partners for Student Potential podcast.  Besides enjoying family and friends, Anne's passions include writing, music, reading, exercise, Huckleberry the dog, and a great cup of coffee — preferably first thing each morning. Anne maintains two blogs: shadowwonder (on Christian spirituality) and gritology (exploring how educators and parents can cultivate grit, determination, resilience, and perseverance — and why we should).

 

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