Alice Cooper’s iconic ode to freedom from the constraints of the classroom, “School’s Out for Summer”, has certainly been the anthem the past couple of weeks as schools close their doors for summer vacation. For most parents, the calendar year doesn’t end on December 31st. The year ends sometime in June after we have guided, cajoled, laughed, cried, yelled at, praised, worried and hugged our children through one more academic year. Life completely revolves around making lunches, school schedules, recitals, after-school sports, clubs, parent-teacher conferences, finals and lastly, after 12+ years of this, pride and relief at graduation. Some might think my days of living the academic calendar has long gone since both of my children graduated college years ago. But I chose a career in academia and right now another school year is ending.
I started advising high school students who attend community college about 17 years ago. In many ways, I feel they are my kids too although with much relief I do not need to be the one to worry whether homework was done or if classes were missed. But they do turn to me, not only for academic advice and guidance but also when life gets challenging or they are having a hard time and just need a reassuring voice or a safe place to let it all out. And it is always those times that make me realize the work I do has so much value and I am often in awe of what kids are trying to handle at such a young age.
There is an infinite amount of information on the transformative power of education and I am certainly one who can attest to that. After giving myself 10 years to make it in a professional acting career, marrying and having two children, I went back to college and finished my BA. It changed my work viability and markedly enhanced my sense of self-worth. Which is why I feel so passionate about my work and about kids getting an education. But the real work is with the students themselves. No one really knows another person’s story or what it takes for them to get out of bed every morning let alone to school. And that is where I find my work most rewarding.
I recently read two autobiographies about the power of education, both of which are making waves on prestigious reading lists. Stephanie Land’s Maid and Tara Westover’s Educated are amazing accounts of these two young women respectively overcoming poverty, nonsupportive and sometimes violent family lives and seemingly insurmountable circumstances to go to school. Against all odds, they both made it to college, earned degrees and yes, are now writing successful books about their journeys. Both of these women have demonstrated that it was education that pulled them from their circumstances and bettered their lives. But for me, the real underlying story was that education was the vehicle. It was really these two young women who were doing the driving.
It’s that which amazes me about the students I work with. They push themselves, sometimes through incredible odds. There is the weight of expectation from their parents, yes, but sometimes there is the weight of no parental support whatsoever. I have found my teenage students dealing with jobs, addictions, either their own or loved ones, or being caretakers to their younger siblings. Every issue has crossed my desk from teen pregnancy to homelessness to juggling two homes because of divorce. I have one student get a full-ride scholarship at a prestigious Ivy League university and another tell me she was told she had to move out of the house right after high school graduation. I have had students in my office, depressed, unwilling to move on, just full of fear…fear of failing, fear of repercussions, fear of loneliness, fear of getting out in the world, just…fear. Suicide rates among teens are skyrocketing. I believe that most parents want what is best for their children and they worry and fret without realizing that can translate into the weight of the world for a child still developing emotionally (I confess to being one of those parents!). What I am finding each year is that the pressure put on these kids to be exceptional, to get into a good school, to be in a lucrative, competitive career and to excel is backfiring on some. There is little messaging about having a career you love, of stopping to smell the roses or just watch clouds go by. I am often astounded at the depth of misery getting a C grade in Calculus can wreak on the steadiest of students.
Commencement Day at the college happened two weeks ago, definitely my very favorite
day in the academic calendar. A community college has students of all ages, backgrounds and life experiences. Formerly incarcerated men and women, adults retraining for another career, homeless students, traditional students moving on to a 4-year university not to mention the high school students I advise who are able to finish a 2 year college degree while graduating high school. There is so much joy and hope and happiness for the graduates and their families at graduation. There are flowers and balloons and many tears, some from the sheer relief. I love watching students walk across the stage knowing full well that they all have stories I know nothing about or what it took for them to be on that stage. It’s the end of one journey and the beginning of another. It’s a bittersweet moment for all of us in academia as we clap and cheer. It happens every June, that sense of completion. But in a few months, September will be here and the next wave of students will be coming to the college and into my office. Their optimism and enthusiasm inspire me. And I know they are ready to get into that driver’s seat.