Self-Sufficiency in the Community College

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Author’s Note: This post was written prior to the coronavirus outbreak in the United States. While I believe the advice to students remains sound under normal circumstances, clearly there are times when they have little or no control over their ability to learn.

In last month’s post, I interviewed Kathy Molloy and Diego Navarro, two former instructors who now work for the Research and Planning Group for California Community Colleges. Kathy and Diego offered valuable advice for reaching out to and retaining students, reminding us of the crucial role the affective realm plays in college learning. 


Community college professors know from similar research, and from our own experience, how important it is for students to feel connected to their instructors, their fellow students and their campus. Yet we also know that college is a time when students become independent and responsible for their own learning. So how do we balance our obligation to provide the necessary support with students’ equally important need to become self-sufficient?  


There’s no universally applicable answer, but I think both students and instructors must acknowledge that there is a tipping point between appropriate and excessive support. I’m remembering a story told by a professor at another college who had tracked her student down after the semester was over so that she could personally administer a final exam he’d failed to take. She was proud of herself for the extra effort—and surely, that dedication is the sign of a big heart—but I couldn’t help, both then and now, wondering how her student did the following semester, when his next instructor might not have had the time, wherewithal or inclination to go to such extraordinary measures to ensure he passed the class.


This month’s post addresses the concerns that story raises for me, focusing on a few areas where student agency is critical. When I’m talking with my own students about what it will take to succeed in my first-semester composition course, I begin by having them write informally about their reasons for pursuing a degree and who they imagine congratulating them on graduation day. Their motivation has to be central to their education, although, of course, I can’t help also offering my own advice, which goes something like this:


Congratulations on having the desire and courage to take a community college English class! In this course, you’ll be honing your reading, writing and thinking skills in ways that will be useful not just in other college classes, but throughout the rest of your life.


For a few lucky folks, the class may be a breeze, but most students will have to work hard throughout the semester—negotiating competing demands and overcoming a range of challenges. If you find yourself in the latter category, I have a few suggestions.


Take advantage of support services.

If you have a problem during the semester, chances are there’s someone on campus whose job it is to help you take care of it. In addition to seeking reading and writing advice from your English instructor, you may also turn to the experienced tutors who staff your campus writing center. If you are dealing with issues outside of this class, academic, personal, financial and career counselors can guide you past any number of obstacles. When in doubt, reach out: ask someone for assistance, and keep asking until you have the result you want.


Talk (and listen) to your instructor.

In your English class, your instructor is the individual—other than yourself—most focused on your success, so make a point of getting to know your professor early in the semester. Even, or especially, if you’re shy, let your instructor know you care about your success in this class.


It’s equally important to listen to what your instructor has to say, and not just when they are speaking. English teachers often communicate most effectively through the written word: before you ask a question in person or by email, see if your professor has already answered it in the course syllabus, or in the prompt for your current writing assignment.


Remember, too, that like a boss at work, your instructor may be very different from you and may not necessarily act like a best friend. Keep your eyes on the prize, which means learning to read and write well, and moving toward your degree. Just as you wouldn’t quit a good job because your boss isn’t a perfect human being, don’t let a teacher’s annoying habits keep you from participating fully in class.


Be willing to make sacrifices.

You can be confident that your instructor and your college want you to succeed, and they are doing everything in their power to make that happen. Inevitably, though, there will be times when you’ll have to give up something important order to achieve your academic goals. Those sacrifices might be as (relatively) painless as passing up a cool vacation during midterms. At other times, the trade-offs may be more significant, like turning down much needed hours at work, or finding someone else to cover family responsibilities, to ensure you are able to study for a test or complete a paper by its due date.


Take responsibility for your actions.

While other people care a great deal about your academic success, ultimately you are the person responsible for passing this course, and all the others that will lead to your graduation. If a grade doesn’t go your way, do your best to get over it and move on to the next assignment. And don’t assume that you can skip assignments without any consequence. Unlike in high school, where the “park and pass philosophy” may result in a passing grade, in college, the responsibility is on you.


Don’t give up.

Ideally, all your hard work will pay off with a passing grade. If it does, way to go!


However, not passing this semester’s course doesn’t mean it was a failure. Community colleges were created with second (and third and fourth) chances in mind. Rather than wallow in frustration or anger, remind yourself of how important a college degree is to your goals, and think of all the skills you’ve learned in your composition course. Even if you haven’t yet mastered the ability to read, write and do research at the college level, you have been practicing those skills for several months, and that practice will serve you well the next time you take the class.