Every Learner Everywhere

How to Improve Access and Support for Community College Students: A Student Leader Perspective

When I returned to college in fall 2020, 15 years after an earlier attempt, I was a single mother to three teenagers, worked full time as a bar manager, had a prison record, and didn’t qualify for financial aid. I was also pretty overwhelmed with the shift to remote learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In one of my first classes, the professor included on her syllabus a list of reasons NOT to contact her. One of them read “Do not email me saying things like you have anxiety and have suffered with it your whole life and it makes you unable to complete your assignments.”

I couldn’t believe what I was reading. How many students had approached her with those problems that she felt the need to include this on her syllabus? Why did she need to let all the students know right off the bat that she didn’t care about them or their struggles?

Other people I’ve met in college have suggested I was lucky to get in, because people with a record don’t have a shot at a serious career. I was told it would probably be best to go back to work and figure it out later when I have things more settled.

The problem is, I will never have things more settled. If I wait, I will stay stuck in the same position I have been in since I was a teenager. Trust me, I have tried.

Luckily, I also met a few good faculty and staff who helped me feel supported and heard, and I can’t express what a world of difference that has made for me. Thanks to that support, I’ve been active in student leadership at Northwestern Connecticut Community College, I’ve completed my certificate in health reimbursement coding specialist, I’m nearing completion of an associate’s degree in health information management, and I’m thinking about the transition to a bachelor’s program.

For what it’s worth, I do have lifelong struggles with anxiety and PTSD. After fifth grade, most of my connection to school involved detention centers and truancy courts. During my first try at college as a teenager, I was completely overwhelmed. Now I’m in my 30s, and I know I can handle it.

Even so, it’s a struggle. In that first semester, I didn’t know how things were done, what faculty wanted, or where and how to submit assignments. Because everyone was working from home, it took forever to get answers to any question.

Taking students as they are

What concerns me is that the message from that teacher saying not to bother her with our troubles felt like it was part of the community college culture more broadly. Her message highlighted the mismatch between what students she and many others wished they had and the students they actually had. The institution sometimes seems to believe the student body should be one way, but my peers and I were just more complicated than that.

I am old enough to know their opinions don’t matter, but what about the young adults who look up to professors and trust their words of guidance? At community colleges, there are many students like me, especially people of color or low income, whose access to education and ability to see it through are influenced by factors like mass incarceration, adverse childhood experiences (ACE), access to childcare, and basic needs like food and housing.

  • The number of people without a high school diploma or GED inside the U.S. correctional system is as high as 47 percent, compared to 18 percent of the population outside the prison system. Students in the judicial system suffer with problems such as housing, finding a good job, and finding their place as a functioning member of society. The problems of people of color and low-income populations cannot be blamed on individual actions or lack of work ethic but reflect real oppressions.
  • Adverse childhood experiences include having incarcerated parents, being exposed to police violence, losing homes, relocations to homes without stability, and many types of domestic violence. According to the Center for Child Counseling, children of different races and ethnicities across the country do not experience the same exposure to ACEs. In the United States, 61 percent of Black children and 51 percent of Hispanic children have experienced at least one ACE, compared to 40 percent of white children. Adults with several ACEs are more likely to face mental/physical issues compared to their peers.
  • Food and housing insecurity is common at community colleges. A recent survey showed that in the previous month, 29 percent of community college students had run out of food and didn’t have money to buy more. Rates were higher among people of color and parents. Stretched budgets mean noodles for dinner, not paying the heat or light bill, or couchsurfing.

It’s not just that community college students are juggling school with work. They are paying for college with dead-end jobs with no slack in them. Minimum-wage jobs are not designed for someone to make a living. They don’t come with vacation time, sick days, raises, or health insurance. We stay stuck in minimum-wage jobs our whole lives, because we cannot see a way out. All of these challenges make it harder to achieve our goals and dreams.

Shell supports vs. a culture of support

Even though community colleges have an outward mission to serve marginalized populations, institutions are not really shaped to help populations to succeed. They often offer a range of supports that I call “shell supports,” which don’t take into consideration who the student body is made up of and often don’t support the students who need it most.

A shell support is a program designed to give the appearance of support but doesn’t take all students into account. An example would be a mental health day or student check-in day once a semester. Shell supports are designed to appear helpful but have no real long-term impact. They perpetuate the division and disenfranchisement we are trying to fight against. Real support is a safe environment and trustworthy staff who students can go to and be heard and supported.

At my college we have an early childhood education program (ECA). It would be so helpful to offer daycare services while student parents are in class, run by the instructors and implemented by the students of ECA. Student parents who can’t afford daycare fees wouldn’t have to worry about unqualified people supervising the children. This is an example of a real support.

There are currently no supports in my college for people who struggle with ACEs, food and housing insecurity, balancing school with work and parenting, or histories of trauma, addiction, or incarceration. The institution would rather look the other way and pretend we are not a part of the student population.

Yet, we are here, and we are struggling.

What community colleges should be

One of my favorite quotes is from another former prisoner, Nelson Mandela, who said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

Education is a basic need, but it is not equitably accessible. We are told the American Dream is possible for those who work hard, but it’s just not true for everyone. People end up feeling something is defective in them and start to blame themselves or their parents and families. It’s never healthy to feel that way, especially because it’s not the truth.

The poor and people of color have been historically oppressed in this country. I used to think that was a “me” problem until I learned how many of my peers experienced the same barriers, microaggressions, and discouragement. This isn’t an individual, isolated experience but a collective problem that can no longer be denied and must be addressed.

With whom does responsibility lie when a student is struggling with their mental health and completing their assignments because community college is a new and unfamiliar experience for them? Too many times a person must worry about talking about their problems for fear of backlash, so they don’t.

Community colleges aren’t prestigious schools. They are supposed to be stepping stones between high school and sustainable careers, and they are supposed to be open to people facing barriers based on their race, socioeconomic class, and ethnicity.

I wish more educators would take us as we are and help us move forward. Teach us how to fish. Teach us how to navigate our education. Be realistic when it comes to what you are expecting of your students. Prepare us for success in academics and a career.

It’s also important to question your institution’s policies and ask who these policies benefit. When were they created and are they realistic for the student body today? Do they take all students into account, or does a certain population succeed? Don’t turn a blind eye to who your student body actually is.

Community colleges can be a powerful tool for change and equity, and to bridge the gaps that divide us. A community college is for non-traditional students. We are working class. If we don’t work, we don’t eat. We have children who are a priority. Although every student wants to better themselves, not every student can. It’s easy to feel hopeless and that you will forever be stuck where you are.

And people do. They live their whole lives working minimum-wage jobs just to eat and survive and pay their bills. Educators are in a position to teach a man or woman to fish. The challenge is rising to the occasion and addressing the needs of the student. After all, without the students, what’s a college? Without a community, what’s a community college?

Hear more from Restivo and other students who are featured in Toward Ending the Monolithic View of Underrepresented Students