Expanding the Historical Narrative at Community Colleges

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Vice President Kamala Harris faced criticism this week for telling Guatemalans not to come to the US/Mexican border  seeking entry without first following other pathways to citizenship. Whether or not we concur with the White House’s stance on undocumented people and conditions at the US/Mexican border, as historians we can agree that our students know more about the political mud-slinging that goes on in relation to immigration policy than they do about the countries that are the birthplaces of millions of people who desire economic opportunity and security here in the United States. 


I am acutely aware of the students’ frustration with this lack of knowledge because I teach at a community college with a large population of students whose families are from the Caribbean and Latin America. In most cases, the students themselves were either born in the United States or were brought to this country at such a young age that they do not remember the living conditions that led to their families’ migrations. Often they will say they know only that their families were “extremely poor” or that one or both of their parents sought political asylum in the United States. Family members, the students tell their professors, are often reluctant to discuss the conditions that led to the immensely difficult decision to leave their homeland. 


It’s time for us, as historians, to help these young people understand their families’ origin stories.


At my college we hope to start this process by hiring an historian who can teach courses specifically related to Latin America and the Caribbean, while also helping us to create a more globally-based survey course. None of this may sound groundbreaking to those of you who teach at universities with dozens of fields of specialization. However, those who teach at community colleges across the United States have long faced the challenge of teaching outside of our fields of expertise so that we can offer as many courses as possible. For an increasingly diverse student population, we must do better.


Consider, for example, that the American Association of Community Colleges reported in 2019 that approximately 41% of all undergraduates in the US are enrolled at community colleges. When we look at statistics for Native American, Hispanic, and Black college students those numbers increase to 56%, 53%, and 43% respectively. It’s well past time, then, for community colleges to commit to more diversity in their history curriculum and to offer content beyond the traditional US history and Western Civilization courses that have typically transferred seamlessly to four-year colleges. If students of color are taking their first college history courses at community colleges, those courses need to not only educate them about important historical events but also help them to see where they -- as people -- fit into the narrative of world history. For first-generation Americans and first-generation college students this need is especially great.


To my fellow community college faculty, a question: what courses is your department offering outside of the traditional US and Western Civilization surveys? How have students responded to the offerings? Is enrollment strong or struggling? I’d love to hear from Macmillan Community faculty grappling with this important challenge. 

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About the Author
Suzanne K. McCormack, PhD, is Professor of History at the Community College of Rhode Island where she teaches US History, Black History and Women's History. She received her BA from Wheaton College (Massachusetts), and her MA and PhD from Boston College. She is currently at work on a study of the treatment of women with mental illness in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Massachusetts and Rhode Island.