It's the Community-College Life for Me


In what feels like another lifetime, I earned a B.A. in classics from Dartmouth College, an M.A. in comparative literature from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and an M.Ed. in English education from Columbia University.

In what definitely feels like this lifetime, I taught at colleges and universities, urban high schools, TRIO programs, community-based family-learning centers, and prisons. A junkie for professional exploration and challenge, I relocated and retooled roughly every three years. Intermittently, I retreated from the "trenches" and taught at Ivy League institutions and other places with positive name recognition where, when you told people you worked there, they smiled.

Now, however, I have finally bested my staying-at-the-same-job record: For seven years, I've taught at the same institution. It is a community college.

People often ask me why I prefer to teach at a community college when I have degrees from more elite institutions. Why didn't I go on and get my Ph.D. and teach at colleges like the ones that I attended -- where I can enjoy the rewards of more prestige and better pay?

Let me tell you how I respond.

First, I tell them, the misconceptions about community colleges run rampant. Many assume a community college is a place where youth pay for screwing up in high school (remedial), adults pay into one system in the hopes of getting pay out of another system (vocational), and people older than 21 "do time" because they failed to "do" college "on time" (nontraditional).

Yet I've found that at Bristol Community College in southeastern Massachusetts, where I teach, the majority of our students are single mothers valiantly struggling to establish some modicum of security for themselves and their children through education. Their personal stories attest to the mind-blowing power of students determined to defy the odds. They remind me of something I feel embarrassed to admit I seldom thought about before I came to the community college: that it is a privilege to demand people's attention and energy, to take their hard-earned money and often fragile self-esteem into your hands.

Students come to the community college with unbridled optimism. Try convincing students who feel they have "arrived" by starting courses at a community college that they're going no-where. How often do you hear undergraduates at prestigious institutions sincerely espouse the belief that education can change one's life?

In fact, I am honored to have taught my community-college students. They make me proud, and they shame me, too, for they have surmounted much greater roadblocks than any I ever faced, and their ambitions for themselves make mine for them seem so small. They make it easy to celebrate their successes and hard to forget their struggles.

My experience at prestigious institutions has led me to believe that elite students go to such colleges to get away from the places that made them who they are -- to be groomed in isolation to become the leaders of communities over which they will preside, but in which they have no daily, ordinary involvement. Precisely the opposite premise is what animates the community college: an institution of, by, and for the immediate community, not isolated, but evolving and involved. Students are drawn to the community college by the infectious sense of belonging that such a place emanates.

In my experience, community-college students focus less on grades and more on their long-term goals than their counterparts at four-year institutions. As a rule, community-college students rarely skip class; they've made too many sacrifices to attend. They remind you of the exact amount they're paying for every minute of your time in a class, and then turn around and offer you their gratitude for the priceless experience you've given them in a course.

I'll also wager that community-college students take advantage of the entire collegial experience and savor daily learning moments more often than students at privileged institutions. It never ceases to surprise me when former students reminisce about classmates, literature, turning points in a class, or the course of their own development at the community college. Students who transfer to four-year institutions regularly return to tell me that they miss the language of family and love of the community college. They find it more fundamental and powerful than the prestige oozing from the lavish grounds, state-of-the-art seminar rooms, and distinguished alumni and faculty members trotted out to remind everyone that they're getting a great education.

I've found that students at prestigious institutions are more caught up in measuring the quality of their education by the future "success" that they expect to curry with their degrees than by the relationships they've cultivated with faculty mentors and intellectual peers. My own educational experience made me want to become a teacher. If choosing teaching as a profession reflects, in part, one's collegiate experience, what does the fact that so few graduates of prestigious institutions pursue teaching on any level tell us about their great education?

Misconceptions also abound about community-college faculty members. We usually are treated as if we teach at community colleges not because we want to, but because we can't get work elsewhere. Some glut of Ph.D.'s supposedly results in wannabee university professors suffering at community colleges for the sake of teaching-related employment. Those who can't "cut it" in the competitive university can "slum it" at the community college and pick up a paycheck for next to nothing.

It's the opposite in my case. I chose to teach at a community college because it celebrates committed, passionate teachers. You get credit for working intensively with people, not with paper, researching, and writing. Your professional stock rises in proportion to your caring about your students' learning. To define myself as a teacher and not a scholar would be an absurd dichotomy, one not possible for the community-college professor, although I seldom get credit for my out-of-classroom "product." We do research for publications and presentations at conferences, too. What's different? We devote much of our discussions at department and faculty meetings to who our students are and how we teach them.

If you don't want to teach, working at a community college is pure torture. You can't get away from students. The ambience is intimate: one-on-one, one by one. Not only do you lack a typical university professor's escape of fobbing off "introductory" lectures to graduate students, but you're forced into small classrooms where you can't even hide behind a podium (one way our lesser resources prove to be a bonus for students).

The word "community" is part of the college's name, but more important, it is the guiding principle for its faculty members. I am in the company of people who, regardless of their position or discipline, make it their business to identify which segments of our community are not making it to or through any primary or secondary school, and who relentlessly reach out to that community in its often overwhelming and ever-changing complexity and diversity.

My colleagues offer continued professional and personal support. Professors that I've worked among at the community college make me proud of our profession. Ours is a labor of love. How can you not embrace that devotion to educational opportunity and, by extension, the environment that solicits and is sustained by it?

If you were to teach at a community college, I guarantee that you would amass unanticipated delights as varied and numerous as the names of the students on your class roster. Rather than pursue a position at another institution to "do something different," I can stay in the same place and do a dozen jobs. I can work with college students of all abilities and backgrounds, in introductory-level and advanced courses. I can work with high-school students through our Dual Enrollment and Upward Bound programs. As director of the education program, I work with students who transfer to four-year institutions to become professional educators.

Finally, oriented to students who are parents and accustomed to offering courses on all kinds of schedules to meet students' chaotic family and work commitments, my deans and colleagues have not forced me to choose between my personal and my professional dreams.

I watched my mentors in college and graduate school driven to play Ping-Pong with their academic careers and their children's lives. I haven't had to sacrifice my children for my job or my job for my children. That ease has brought me closer to my work -- just as being a parent has brought me closer to my students.

The desire to meld my work and family life is also what brought me to the community college. It is yet another reason that I can say without qualification: Both professionally and personally, teaching at a community college is the best thing that ever happened to me.

Ellen Olmstead is an associate professor of English at Bristol Community College. She was named a Professor of the Year in 1999 by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.