Community colleges and our collective future | Heather Wylie | TEDxRedding

Community colleges and our collective future | Heather Wylie | TEDxRedding

October 2, 2019 2 By Ronny Jaskolski


Translator: Sarah Lu
Reviewer: Mirjana Čutura I’m a teacher, and I do not value education. And neither should you. If we really want to support students,
we need to stop educating them; instead, we need to focus
on getting students connected: connected to ideas, communities,
and maybe most importantly, themselves. And community colleges like Shasta
is where this is happening. Did you know there’s over 1100
community colleges in the U.S. today, serving close to 13 million students? Just for some perspective, there’s only four states in the country
with a population larger than that. Talk about a voting bloc. In fact, I’m kind of curious. Raise your hand if you went
to a community college. Okay, keep them up. Now raise your hand if you know someone
that went to a community college. Look around! These are huge numbers of people
whose lives have in some way been shaped by a system of higher education that, let’s be honest,
gets a pretty bad rap. Community colleges are often
thought of as places of last resort, places to “hang out” for any lack of anything better to do
for those “high school screw-ups.” I’ve even heard people say
that they’re not real colleges, that somehow it’s not a “real degree.” In fact, getting ready for today, I looked up “talks on community colleges”
and guess how many I found. Yeah, zero. We’re not even important
enough to talk about. That’s ridiculous! Community college is the largest system
of higher education on the planet, to connect to and serve
our most important, and, I would argue,
our most undervalued asset: you and you and you! Colleges like Shasta
are today creating spaces that allow students to contribute
in ways that benefit all of us. Seriously. Imagine a world without Mickey Mouse, Luke Skywalker, iPhones,
or women in outer space. Yeah, all the people
responsible for these – community college graduates. Our very own judge, Tamara Wood, a recently appointed
Shasta County Superior Court judge – a Shasta College graduate. I’ve had the absolute privilege
for over a decade of being a sociology professor
at Shasta College, and during that time, my students – not me –
have served the role of a teacher. From them, I’ve learned
that what really matters in their lives didn’t come from education; it came from who and what
they were connected to while students. Students like Christina, who connected to a concept
in my class that changed her life. Or my student Mike, a man thrown off the rails
by our recession in 2008, connected to probably
the most important thing while at Shasta: himself. And in reflecting on students
like them and so many others, it occurred to me
that that’s what saved me, a first-generation college student, from a single-wide trailer
just a few miles up the road to the college professor
standing here today. It wasn’t my education. It was my connection
to my education that got me here. So my goal today is to convince you of the transformative power
of community colleges from places of last resort to institutions at the forefront
of innovation, inspiration, and social change. By the end of my talk today, you’ll be convinced that community colleges
aren’t places to end up, but the places to be. Consider Christina,
a former student of mine. A young slight woman
from a working-class immigrant family, in a town that even by our rural standards
was pretty much in the boonies, Christina was the first person
in her family to go to college. The fact that she was enrolled
in my Introduction to Sociology class was kind of a statistical miracle. Unfortunately for her, however, she ended up in my very first
class as a new teacher. Yeah, there I was – this fresh face, obnoxiously optimistic professor, who only the week before,
with quite some ceremony, had retired my grungy,
grad school backpack and bought an adult briefcase. Now, it was a purple briefcase,
but it was still a briefcase. And I remember I worked so hard. I read articles and books
on the art of educating, and I’m pretty sure I haven’t worked
that hard on anything since, come to think about it. And … she didn’t get it, right? I lectured, I quizzed, I PowerPointed. I’m not even sure that’s a verb. And they didn’t get it. Mercifully, the semester finally ended, and both my students and myself
were a bit disenchanted, to say the least. Thankfully, a winter break,
some rainy hikes, and, I will admit,
a glass of wine or two later, it hit me: these students had been educated
their entire lives, but because of forces
so much bigger than them – racism, sexism, poverty, politics – they came to me, they came to college disconnected. And teaching them
in this traditional educational way was actually making things worse. I could educate until the cows come home, and where I live, you can actually
watch the cows come home. These students
weren’t going to get it, not because they weren’t smart, but because in this process of educating, they were being reminded, yet again,
that they were lacking in some way, that they weren’t agents
of their own futures. Something had to change. So let’s look at this verb, “to educate.” What does it mean? To give intellectual, moral,
or social instruction. What’s wrong with educating? Well, two things. One, when you’re being educated, you are by definition a passive learner,
devoid of knowledge in your own right. What you bring to the table – your experience,
your expertise – isn’t valued. Two, educating creates a hierarchy with teachers on the top
and students on the bottom. The verb demands that the student
be lacking in some way. I mean, how open are you
to new ideas, new information when you’re made to feel less than? Me, not so much. And this persistent focus on educating is especially dangerous
at community colleges. Because we only accept
the top 100 percent of applicants – (Laughter) Our students can come from communities
that have been structurally disconnected from society’s resources, like education,
politics, and social change. And this is not only their problem; it’s our problem. We society suffer when they’re not given
an opportunity to contribute. Imagine a world – I don’t want to live in a world
without female astronauts, female judges, Princess Leia, Chewbacca. Seriously! So, back to Christina. Probably against her own better judgement, she signed up for my Sociology of Gender
class a few semesters later. But this time, instead of lectures and quizzes, I had my students participate
in service learning projects, where I asked them
to connect class material to work in a nonprofit
here in the community, many of you, probably, in fact. And I remember, in my office, talking with Christina
about possible service sites, and she mentioned that she was interested in working
with survivors of sexual assault. Later, from her story, I learned that Christina
not only had to overcome economic and racial barriers
to becoming a college student – Christina was a rape survivor. I distinctly remember her sitting there,
clutching her cold latte, sharing the violence and the trauma
done to her as a young child. Handing her tissue after tissue, I was struck not only by the violence
that she was sharing, but by how she kept focusing on the things that she should’ve done to keep
this from happening and how alone she felt as a survivor. Here was this young woman
sitting across from me that was, in so many ways, disconnected. This gave me an idea. Remember that concept
I was struggling with trying to get our students to think about,
the sociological imagination? I encouraged her to revisit it in her work
with the local women’s nonprofit. A few weeks later, I’m in my office,
grading their reflection assignments, and I came across Christina’s,
and I wanted to share it with you. She wrote, “It was powerful to talk to these women and explain how this whole thing –
sexism, discrimination – is so much bigger than me. That it’s a system
that’s broken, not them. Nothing they did or do
will ever justify being treated unequally. That really, if we want to deal
with domestic violence and sexual assault, we’ve got to deal
with gender discrimination.” That was it! That’s what I’ve been trying
so long to educate her about: this idea that individuals
and society are interconnected, that these forces together
shape our experiences. But Christina didn’t get it
from being educated. She got it because
she was provided a space to connect with this concept,
and to connect with it on her own terms. So what does this word “connect” mean? To join together so as to provide
access and communication. Why are colleges like Shasta shifting
from educating to connecting? Well, one, connection allows agency
in a learning process. Christina played an active role
in connecting to this concept. Two, connection recognizes
and respects a diversity of knowledge. It values the experiences
students bring with them. And three, connection erases this hierarchy
between students and teachers. Christina got this concept
because she connected with people, not from a professor that “gave” her
something she was assumed not to have. And here’s an example of community
colleges doing exactly what they should: create space and support for students to connect
to ideas that benefit all of us. Or take my student Mike.
He’s like so many others. This young, 30-year-old man
felt the ground shift underneath him during the recession in 2008. With construction jobs drying up,
he decided to go back to college, and I can still remember him
awkwardly trying to fold his long legs under our tiny little desks. Mike was not only physically
uncomfortable at school, he was uncomfortable
with the idea of college. He would come by and confidently
express his lack of confidence in writing and test-taking
and being a student in general. He shared a story of growing up
in a family with drug abuse, domestic violence, divorce, and these experiences not only
undermined his skills as a student, they were keeping him from
seeing himself as a student. Mike was struggling trying to connect
these seemingly disconnected identities, and this was a problem. Because of my success with Christina, I decided to have Mike’s class explore
this other concept, social inequality, by observing the work
of social service programs in our community, and Mike chose to work
with young men on probation. Near the end of the semester, he made a point of asking me
to look over his essay to see if he was on the right track. Here’s part of what he wrote: “I struggled for the first
year or two at college, trying to figure out how to fit in. I didn’t belong here. People talked differently,
acted different. I didn’t seem to fit. Working with these kids, though,
helped me see the connection between who I am and who I want to be. The class project helped me see how my education connects
to something real.” What do you think?
Was he on the right track? Yeah! Students like Christina and Mike
succeeded in my class not because they were being educated, but because they were both provided
spaces to connect to material, and in Mike’s case, to connect
to his identity as a student. Mike succeeded not in spite of,
but because of who he was. He went on to graduate with honors
and was recently hired as a social worker right here in Shasta county. His success is our success. Our community is a better place
because of him. Okay, so what? Why does all this feel-good stuff matter? Why should we stop educating
and start connecting? Because we risk failing to do our job
as an institution of higher education, which is to support students’ civic
and economic engagement in society. We all risk losing out on those ideas, those things, those people
that are going to make our lives better. Christina and Mike and students like them
inspired us at Shasta College. Conversations in classrooms,
office hours, crowded hallways led to committee meetings
and board discussions, which led to real changes
in how we support students. Today, your community college
is absolutely committed to creating spaces
that allow students to connect. We’ve been busy. Programs like STEP-UP that connect
people in prison to college classrooms. Leadership High School,
where we take today’s teens and mold them to be
tomorrow’s movers and shakers. Or Gateway to College, where we have students
at risk of failing high school, instead go to college. Or NEW, Non-Traditional
Employment for Women, a program designed to encourage women
to consider those “man jobs,” like welding and heavy equipment, because there’s real money
in those jobs in our community. Or my program, Civic and Community Engagement, where we’ve connected almost 200 students
with over 30 businesses and nonprofits through internships
and service learning projects. So that’s what we’ve been up to. What about you? What are you doing to nurture connections
that inspire our community? Well, if you’re a business owner
or a service provider, connect to students,
not only for their futures, but yours. If you’re student, connect with those people that are going to connect you
with those people to grow your networks. And if you’re a teacher, stop educating. Instead, think about Christina, Mike. Think about those people,
those ideas that you’re connected to that made you the asset
that you are today. And all of you, we need all of you to help us
change the conversation from community colleges
as places of last resort to institutions of innovation,
inspiration, and social change. Places that connect and thus inspire and nurture
our community’s most important asset: all of you. Thank you. (Applause)