By Anne Pharr

Who Are the Least of These?

I’m an English professor at a community college. And I’ve learned a few things about my current students:

  • One suffers from a debilitating disease requiring medication that causes unpleasant side effects;
  • One survived a near-fatal car accident a few months ago;
  • One has a learning disability but has not been not able to update the medical documentation to receive much-needed accommodations;
  • One is a single parent with a 45-minute commute each way; 

  • Two were hospitalized last week;

  • One, a non-native English speaker and parent of four, missed class so she could register her children to receive Christmas gifts through Salvation Army’s Angel Tree program;
  • One, who moved thousands of miles to separate herself from a dysfunctional family, just received a cancer diagnosis;
  • One works two jobs on top of a full academic load;
  • Some entered college with standardized test scores indicating a need for remedial courses;
  • Many are first in their families to attempt college, and they hope to make their families proud;
  • And, if this year’s statistics look anything like last year’s, a majority of these students are experiencing some level of economic instability while they are pursuing their academic goals.

When I began teaching at a local community college in 1998, it didn’t take me long to find much to love about this new community of students. In those initial semesters of teaching Developmental English, I relished the chance to help students move toward their academic goals. The work was challenging, but rewarding.

Some students really struggled with the rigor of the coursework, but I wasn’t particularly surprised, since my courses were remedial. What I began to see, though, after a few semesters, is that many of my students’ difficulties stemmed not only from poor academic preparation, but also from a range of other challenges — challenges I’d never had to face, and that, if I’m honest, I would have lacked the resilience to navigate. I had certainly worked hard to do well in college, but the dedication I witnessed in many of my students was of a different, tougher kind. These students studied hard to master the subject matter, but many also had to fight — really fight — just to buy their books and make it to class all semester long.

I was troubled by what I noticed about my students’ lives. I wanted to see them reach their goals, and I wanted to learn how best to help them — to come alongside them more effectively. But I often felt ill-equipped. I even wondered if I might have misunderstood God’s call to take this teaching position in the first place.   

I vividly remember a September Sunday morning when, in back-to-school spirit, my pastor invited educators and students to stand so that the congregation could pray for us. In that moment, I was flooded with prayer and anticipation that God might use me, even in the smallest of ways, in my work with students and also filled with the troubling uneasiness that came with acknowledging that God’s answer to my prayer might make me even more uncomfortable.

God answered that prayer, in part, through two professional conferences where I encountered other faculty with similar concerns and questions. One presenter introduced me to Martin Joos’s Registers of Language, and I recognized a paradigm that helped me make sense of what I so often encountered with my students, as they worked to communicate in an environment dominated by consultative, formal, and frozen registers — ways of speaking that, for some, can be unfamiliar. Another presenter likened the experience of reading, writing, and communicating in academic English to that of learning a second language. And she also discussed how entering and navigating the unfamiliar culture of higher education can be as intimidating as traveling to another country — especially for first-generation college students.

In addition to deepening my understanding of my students’ experiences, these conferences helped me understand how my own experiences have influenced — and, in some ways, misguided — my preconceived ideas about my students’ lives. As someone whose family found a way to provide financial support for a private four-year university, I had almost no exposure to economic instability. Although I supported myself during two years of graduate school — living on a shoestring budget — my parents, and emergency financial help if needed, were just a phone call away. When I accepted my current faculty position at Pellissippi State, although I’d spent a dozen years in higher education as a student, tutor, academic advisor, and faculty member, I’d never set foot on a community college campus. My assumption was that Pellissippi would look and feel similar to the universities I’d known.

While community colleges are similar in their academic rigor, I quickly realized that the student population at the college where I teach is different than what I’d expected. During the Fall 2015 semester, over 60% of our institution’s 10,000 students would have qualified for free and reduced lunch, if such a resource were available at the college level. This number, 8% higher than the national average, means over 6,000 students were experiencing some form of economic instability while working on their college courses.

These numbers are even more compelling when I recognize that in just one of my classes of 30 students, there’s a good chance 18 are struggling to make ends meet while they are taking the course. And that’s just in a single class. One student can just barely afford gas for his commute; one lacks a working laptop for schoolwork; one attempts to squeeze in study time between caring for children; one searches for affordable medical care that doesn’t require health insurance — not to mention purchasing needed medication.  

While students with greater economic stability have the margin to cover the unanticipated but necessary costs of college, low-income students may struggle to stay on top of even basic expenses, such as food and travel to campus. And although financial aid may cover tuition, fees, and (hopefully) books, low-income students often realize — many times after the semester has begun — that their courses operate on the assumption that each student has access to a computer, printer, specific software, and reliable internet. Yet for many students, these are additional and unexpected expenses that may prove prohibitive.

My institution works hard to provide support for all students — computer labs with printers, free tutoring, and a college-wide program designed to identify struggling students and connect them with campus and community resources. And I am fortunate to be part of that program. Yet even with a wide range of supportive resources, students’ college aspirations can crumble quickly when their circumstances take a turn for the worse. I’ve lost count of how many bright, capable students — faces full of hope at the semester’s start — find themselves unable to finish out the term because of unexpected difficulties, many times exacerbated by a scarcity of economic resources.

It may sound patronizing to suggest that these struggling college students are one of the groups Christ had in mind when he taught his followers to care for “the least of these.” But when my students share their stories with me, I can’t help but wonder whether they are the ones to whom I am called to extend kindness and care — at least in the form of a listening ear, and maybe by offering to help locate and access helpful resources.

Having the opportunity to play my small part in helping my students recognize and strengthen their God-given abilities is a rare joy. But seeing their struggles — often up close during an office-hour conversation — continues to be deeply challenging. Knowing the difficulties so many of them face creates moral complexities that can seem impossible to unravel. And that is just one way that I, too, am one of “the least of these.” In my faltering attempts to extend kindness to these students — each one created and loved by a heavenly father — I am continually reminded of my own deeply ingrained frailty and relieved that I, too, am loved, despite my own struggles.

Perhaps my kindness is a gift that can meet one small need for them; undoubtedly, their existence in my life is a gift I desperately need.

About the Author

A graduate of Baylor University, Anne Pharr has taught English as well as College Success at Pellissippi State Community College, Knoxville, Tennessee, since 1998. Through PSCC's Student Success Program, she connects struggling students with campus and community resources to help them pursue their academic goals.  Along with some of her colleagues, Anne has also developed a college-wide initiative, Partners for Student Potential, whose mission is to deepen and broaden faculty and staff awareness of the challenges and strengths represented by under-resourced students. Besides spending time with family and friends, her passions include music, reading, exercise, Blue Bell ice cream, Huckleberry the dog, and a great cup of coffee — preferably 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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