Sharing Our Academic Journeys

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I have the privilege this year of parenting two students in their senior years: one in high school and one in college. As a result, I’m spending a lot of time thinking about higher education and the paths to undergraduate and graduate degrees. In particular, I’m hearing about the stress of making seemingly enormous decisions at the tender ages of 18 and 22. While I’m quite certain my own children are tired of hearing my personal story for the thousandth time, I think as faculty it’s worth sharing with the students in our lives why and how we made the decisions we did regarding education. 


I can only vaguely recall being a high school senior with a handful of college acceptances. I remember not wanting to move far away from home and knowing with certainty that I would be limiting the number of math and science courses I took to the bare minimum. I emphasize how little I remember about this decision-making process because so many of us as parents and educators want to see young people quickly and assertively make decisions about their academic and career paths. When we reflect on our own, however, we are reminded of how foggy and unclear it all seemed in the moment. 


As a professor at a community college, I’m perhaps even more sympathetic to the challenges of academic decision making than most parents. I see first-hand, regularly, how the college search process can go wrong. Teaching in a state with a program that offers free community college to recent high school graduates means I have a lot of fresh-faced 18 year olds in my classes each fall. I also, however, work with just as many students for whom the first choice of their college search process did not work out as planned. Students have found themselves too far from home or with financial aid complications or at a university/college that was too big/too small for their learning style. Community college for those students is an opportunity to re-group and re-think their futures. Oftentimes, it is in our classrooms at the community college that these students find the path that they did not know they were searching for.


As we approach the semester’s end, let’s do our best as faculty and teachers to help guide our students through the challenges of decision-making and path-building. Being open and honest with our students about the right/wrong choices we made along our own journeys can be enormously helpful to both young people just starting out as well as to those non-traditional college students seeking a life reboot. With all of the stress and challenges facing students today, let’s do our best to show empathy for how difficult it is to make decisions amidst the turmoil of the pandemic. No matter our academic discipline, the students we teach amidst this chaos will remember us in the future for our kindness. 

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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.