by Joyce Helens, President, St. Cloud Technical & Community College
May 25, 2014
It's that time of year when the academic rites of passage surround us. Graduation.
Predictable as the seasons, we go to school, moving through the stages of learning with small steps until we reach that ultimate and expected goal of a college degree, which lands us that great job. Right? I mean isn't that what everyone does?
Not exactly, depending on what profile you fit.
If you are well-off, had family members who went to college and are white, you have a good chance of attending and graduating college. But if you are first generation or non-white, middle- or low-income, the chance of you attending college, much less graduating, drops off dramatically.
Recently in New York Times Magazine, author Paul Tough reported the United States now ranks 12th in the world in the percentage of young people who have earned a college degree, the result of a disturbing stratified trend of degree completion.
Tough also says although most freshmen — rich or poor, white or minority, first-generation or legacy — experience academic setbacks and feelings of not belonging, white students, wealthy students and students with college-graduate families tend not to interpret those setbacks as a sign that they don't belong in college or that they're not going to succeed there.
It is primarily lower income, first-generation students or students of color who are susceptible to this problem. Those students, he says, often misinterpret temporary setbacks as a permanent indication they can't succeed or don't belong.
Reversing this trend is at the heart of the mission of the community and technical college movement — and a part of what St. Cloud Technical & Community College does so successfully.
A culture of caring
On Wednesday we awarded more than 1,100 degrees, certificates and diplomas to students who primarily fit in the middle-American and new American profiles. As I shook hands and congratulated the hundreds of students who walked across the stage, I recognized each had a special story worth telling because their success represents the greater success of our community and our collective ability to grow a strong citizenry and workforce, which benefits us all. Here are a few examples.
Our student population at the graduation ceremony included first-generation college graduates like Jeannette Lopez from Melrose, who I met the previous evening at a TRIO graduation dinner.
TRIO is an outreach program assisting individuals who are first-generation college students, low-income or disabled students. It helps them progress through the academic pipeline to college completion.
Jeanette told me she had no idea how to pursue a college education as she listened to friends say they were enrolling after high school. A failed attempt at college in 2009 made her feel like she failed her family and herself. But Jeannette was no quitter, and she wanted more than working in a processing plant.
Jeanette moved to St. Cloud and walked into SCTCC in 2012 to see if she could enroll. She was afraid this was her last chance. What she found was the welcoming cohort of students who had life experiences like she did. She also found a caring staff and faculty who showed her where to go for help with study skills and tutoring.
Jeanette listened to motivational videos every morning, determined to be successful. And she was. Jeanette walked across the stage with honors, successfully having completed an associate's degree and is transferring to St. Cloud State University to complete her bachelor's degree.
It is true all students run into difficult challenges when they pursue a college degree. But for some who have not had the advantage of privilege, this can be almost an impossible dream. At SCTCC, all students learn they are deserving and capable of an excellent college education leading to meaningful work. Smaller classes and dedicated faculty certainly make a difference, but it's the very culture of caring for each individual that makes the SCTCC experience so successful.
This year, one of my most satisfying moments occurred after I shook hands with a young man who had just graduated from the welding program.
I did not catch his name as it was being called. But I did hear Allison Waggoner, human resources director for DCI Inc, and vice president of the SCTCC Foundation, say to him, "See you next week." Turns out she had just hired him!
Congratulations to all St Cloud Technical & Community College graduates who, as we like to say, "got in, got out and got a job."