Marisa Vernon, Cuyahoga Community College
I recently changed jobs, taking on more administrative responsibility and strategic leadership. My current position has brought me to another large community college only a few hours from the familiar campus where I learned to fully embrace and understand the role of the two-year college in our educational system.
In the three years I spent at Columbus State Community College, I learned how to truly lead others and also how to navigate the politics, processes, and strategies of a large urban community college. Leading an advising office through the peaks and valleys of institutional change, I began to understand how to inspire others to focus on student needs, provide exceptional support to the campus community, and push others to dissect the student experience.
Though this professional experience has, undoubtedly, added a valuable layer to my administrative foundation, the most profound impact from my time in Columbus, Ohio, was not gained on campus. Rather, I now find myself most grateful for a personal challenge I decided to accept in order to connect even closer to the students I served.
This article takes a bit of a detour from my regular, less personal commentary on issues facing community colleges, though I am convinced we become better educators when we share interesting, rich experiences from an honest perspective.
Poverty and Education: The Beginning of a Passion
As a kid growing up, I shook things up a little bit. I was relatively reserved, though balanced with an insatiable thirst for knowledge and experiences that had to have been utterly exhausting to two young parents. I asked questions often, and I cannot imagine most of them were easily answered or satisfied with a yes or a no.
Colleagues know my brain has not changed much, and now rather than exhausting my parents, it can at times exhaust me as a professional. A never-ending stream of intake, processing, and reflection means I rarely exit experiences without takeaway. Like many who work in two-year college environments, layers and layers of experiences have slowly stoked the social justice fire within. I carry it around often, and am blessed to have a career where open dialogue is not only appreciated, but encouraged.
I first came to the community college world after a seven year experience at an open-enrollment regional campus of a large University, which was a wonderful bridge. The two environments were similar in terms of access missions, retention challenges, and low tuition costs. I understood the student population, trends, and stigma associated with open access education, which supported my smooth transition into a community college culture. I happily settled into a nearby suburb, and got to work.
In an effort to meet my new colleagues and connect further with students, I joined a learning community, open to faculty, staff, and students, focused on diversity issues. The dialogue was richer than I had experienced in previous environments, and our group conversations often touched upon the great, unspoken factor linked to success in life: wealth. While I, perhaps intellectually, understood that wealth could facilitate choices, achievement, and further attainment, I had not fully connected its power in education until then.
Almost immediately after engaging in raw, uncensored dialogue through the campus learning community, I began to see differences in the student population that had initially seemed familiar. I no longer simply heard student stories about struggles related to transportation, lack of book money, childcare conflicts, and domestic struggles; rather, I really listened to the stories and tried to comprehend their impact on the students’ ability to complete a degree. Suddenly, the standard excuses I had heard from students for nearly a decade began to seem deeply individualized, intertwined, and complex. One barrier to success seemed to be tied to another, and untangling the web of challenges facing our campus’ urban population presented a daunting task.
My lens is that of a middle class, majority, heterosexual, graduate school educated professional. I could have left it at that, and tucked myself away into a pocket of the world that feels comfortable, safe, and familiar. I have, many times, felt as though I don’t belong in conversations about race, class, sexuality, or culture. During those moments, all internal alarms signal to run back to safety. But on many occasions while working at community colleges, I have ignored that internal alarm and challenged myself to understand how these forces may apply themselves to educational attainment.
Making the Move
As I began to interact with more students, hear their stories from my Academic Advisor supervisees, and engage in dialogue at the campus level, I felt a disconnect between work focus and my personal life. Daily, I immersed myself in developing strategies to increase attainment and success among first-generation, minority students from impoverished backgrounds. At the end of each day, I returned back to a comfortable suburb packed with dining and shopping options, two-parent families, and an esteemed school system. The gap between the two environments was pervasive and a bit unsettling, especially as I developed a deeper understanding of the challenges poverty presents to community college students.
After several years on the job, my husband and I decided to begin looking for a home to buy. We quickly realized many of the suburbs were financially out of reach given our preference for disposable income. I had become familiar with the area near the community college campus, an old neighborhood seeing its fair share of challenges. The area was exceptionally diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, and income levels, with boarded up homes next to newly renovated ones. I knew many of the college’s students lived in the area, and was aware of the challenges as the neighborhood fought to find equilibrium.
We worked on an abandoned home for several months before moving in. And in the months to follow, I learned more about the issues facing the students with whom I worked than I could have ever imagined.
Experiencing Challenges Firsthand
While working with urban community college students in an academic advising capacity, safety, transportation, access to quality food, and a lack of social support are often described as barriers to success in education. These concepts often made me reflect on my own educational journey, which was relatively void of serious challenges and free of barriers. Looking back, I realize how simplistic my advice may have seemed to the students with whom I worked. While I logically knew students relied on a complicated bus system to access the community college, I did not fully understand this impact on course scheduling, the ability to engage while on campus, and the time invested in travel. I listened to students’ stories about their responsibility in caring for family members with chaotic lives, often prodding them to focus on themselves and their education. I could not understand why a student struggling financially would decline the student loans intended to help him or her obtain an education, or why another may jeopardize his or her financial future by maxing out Financial Aid each semester. I even sat in student affairs meetings and wondered whether or not the campus truly needed a food pantry, and why some students seemed to rely so heavily on the campus community to provide even more than just access to an education.
I did not realize how difficult these success barriers were to untangle until I lived in the same community, attempted to overcome the same barriers, and saw firsthand the lack of resources available to those who live in a deteriorated neighborhood.
As an avid runner, I felt trapped by my concerns about safety past dark. This simple unfulfilled ritual forced me to think about what a student walking home to the neighborhood from evening class may encounter. In addition, I found myself thinking about related issues, such as stress management, health, and overall wellness, and how these aspects of a student’s livelihood may be impacted simply by his or her address. Sure, an individual can make a conscious choice to select a different means to an end (in this case, outdoor exercise), but doing so requires additional steps, complications, and intrinsic motivation.
Similarly, I was immediately able to see why the area from which many of our students came had been deemed a “food desert”. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention define food deserts as “areas that lack access to affordable fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lowfat milk, and other foods that make up the full range of a healthy diet.” Save a few urban gardens and a recently added co-op, the nearest grocery stores required access via automobile or city bus. Even as a new member of the community, I could envision how, without reliable transportation, access to food could become a cumbersome chore to those already juggling roles as students, parents, caretakers, and employees.
This observation was exacerbated by a robust discussion among neighbors via an online forum. One individual posted a long rant about a national pizza chain that refused to deliver to her home based on her address. The issue sparked an ongoing debate about access to services, and how limited services may be for those who live in neighborhoods deemed “poor” or “unsafe.” While pizza delivery served as a trivial issue on the surface, the example was a simple display of the differences in convenience, commodities, and service available within less developed sections of American cities.
Previous to my move, I had been involved in several campus meetings focused on initiating a campus food pantry. As a student affairs administrator, I had always supported the idea, and joined active committees to push the idea forward. However, I can honestly say I did not fully understand how such a resource could alleviate stressors for our students until I placed myself directly in the same environment. While my experience was far different than my neighbors’ due to my earnings, even minimal exposure to a food desert was enough to show me how students may be struggling to meet basic needs while attending community college.
As I observed the neighborhood through a lens of privilege, I began to notice that the most profound factors were actually intangible and difficult to describe. Each year in my previous neighborhood, middle- to upper-class families proudly displayed banners in their front yards, boasting high school graduation and the name of the student’s destination college or university. Celebrations of success were not present on the blocks surrounding our new home, though I knew students attending the campus on which I worked lived behind those doors. Such intangibles, immeasurable details, are the differences that I continue to reflect upon even now that I have moved on to a new community college system.
These subtle social nuances between the “haves” and the “have nots” surely play a role in the resiliency, persistence, and motivation it takes to complete a college degree. While I am not a social science expert or researcher by trade, I can tell a deep shift in my approach to working with students who juggle multiple stressors on their way to a degree. Students who start off with few resources are far more likely to experience bumps in the road more frequently, are more fragile than their privileged peers, and perhaps experiencing greater stress than others will ever encounter.
The social issues impacting our students are complex, and so are the lenses through which we view them. However, sitting back and looking through the lenses we were given has its limits. By pushing the limits of a comfort zone, we cannot help but learn and question in order to adapt. In turn, we are better educators, supporters, and guides for students who face challenges that may be different from those with which we have personal experience.
The return on pushing the boundaries of our comfort zone is that we can no longer ignore large-scale social issues when we are close to them. When issues like food deserts, income gaps, access to quality education, and transportation serve as inconveniences in our own lives, we begin to take notice. For educators who appreciate the process of learning, choosing to be part of the solution means watching from the sidelines is no longer an option. It’s not a matter of settling for less; it is a matter of leaning into uncomfortable experiences knowing the return will help us be better, know more, and empathize more deeply.
As faculty, staff, and administrators, moving to a new neighborhood, worldwide travel, or additional education may not be feasible to all. However, small attempts to push our personal boundaries can help to chip away at the walls that often prevent us from supporting students in the best way possible.
- What are some small ways you can learn more about what your students may be experiencing in their lives off-campus, and how can your institution address some of these issues?
- Reflecting upon your experience, have there been student success initiatives your college or university may have explored that you did not support? Looking back on these initiatives, can you view them with a different perspective?
- What are some of the invisible or visible privileges you have that may prevent you from fully understanding certain students’ experiences while in college?
A Look Inside Food Deserts. (2012, September 24). Retrieved November 12, 2015, from http://www.cdc.gov/features/FoodDeserts/index.html
About the Author
Marisa Vernon is Assistant Dean – Access and Completion, at Cuyahoga Community College – Westshore Campus. Opened in 1963, Cuyahoga Community College (Tri-C®) is Ohio’s first community college and now the state’s largest, serving 50,000 students each year. The college offers two-year associate degrees, certificate programs, and the first two years of a baccalaureate degree. The curriculum includes 1,600 credit courses in more than 140 career, certificate and university transfer programs. Courses are offered at four campus locations, two Corporate College® facilities, online, hybrid courses, and many off-campus sites.
Please e-mail inquiries to Marisa Vernon.
The ideas expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of ACPA members or the ACPA Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.