Where Students Come From: Is It Important?

I am employed at a small community college in a small town. The surrounding counties and their residents are poor, and in current economic times, their lives and finances are not getting any easier. As the economy plummets, student enrollment continues to rise, especially within the community college system. This may seem odd, but with no available jobs, people turn to college as a means to help them get back on their feet. This is easier said than done.

My students are mostly Native American, African American, or multi-racial. Their ages range from teens to students in their fifties and sixties. Most come from poverty or are poor themselves. When I ask my students why they are in college, their answers are standard. They are here to better themselves, or to provide a better life for their families. But when I ask them what their goals are or their dreams, shockingly, many don’t have any or struggle to come up with an answer. If they do come up with an answer, I am usually surprised at how low they set their goals, or how menial their dream jobs are. I never hear them say they want to become doctors, lawyers or anything exciting. Rather, they tell me they want to just move up at their current jobs or work at some sub-par job. I would love to hear them strive for something big, or at least tell me they want to go from a two-year institution to a four-year institution. Yet, they have no dreams or aspirations to succeed at the highest levels.

Why Dreams are Dashed

Educational GoalsIn a recent article, “Greater Expectations – Too Little Praise Leaves Kids – and Entire Communities – Doubting Their Potential,” it explains how students begin doubting themselves as early as elementary school. The author states, “In many African-American Communities and on many American Indian Reservations: poor results feed low expectations, which lead to poor results and low expectations.” This trend can be broken, states the author, but only with recurring praise to the students. However, this is something that I think my students have not seen a lot of, and it may be the reason why they aim so low. If my students have been around failure their whole lives, what would make them understand that they have chances to succeed? I hear my students talk about their parents being on drugs, or in jail on a daily basis. Many explain that they don’t even know their father or mother. I have students who are 17 who already have two children. Many of my students are single mothers who work 12 hour shifts at low wage jobs just to get by. They have lived with failure and trouble their whole lives. They come to school to escape, but the reality is, they have never been able to envision a day where they won’t struggle. Thus, they strive low, and lack the confidence that will help them grow. It is true and it is sad. But it is reality.

Is there a Solution?

As faculty members we cannot change our students’ past, or even present state; we can only help them to comprehend that they can have a brighter future. It is clear that the earlier students can gain confidence, the better the chances are that they will succeed. However, praise goes a long way, even at the community college level. Many of my students need me to say, “Good job.” Even if they do poor work, I can give them confidence by telling them to keep working hard, and the results will come. They have been stuck in this mindset of just getting by or living paycheck to paycheck. Their goals are short term. I would like my students to consider long term goals so that they can reach their dreams.

This is a problem at that exists across the nation, but with programs on campuses such as career counseling, and even tutoring and Writing Skills Centers to helps students with work, I feel that community colleges are moving in the right direction. Some schools, such as the one I am employed at, have mentors who work with minority students daily. Programs like this help students with their course work and instill in them the confidence that they need to succeed in their future endeavors. Even if faculty members are not involved in such programs, they have to be cognizant that students look at them as not only a teacher, but a mentor and roll model.

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