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What It Means to Really Feel a Pathway to Possibility

by Dawn-Stacey Joyner - February 16, 2022

Referred to as the peoples colleges in the literature, U.S. community colleges provide an open venue for all to partake in educational opportunities, which is unmatched in the world.  For this week, we highlight three commentaries all of which are powerful narratives that reveal just how important community colleges can be in altering ones life chances, especially for those who are first in their families to attend college. Each of the commentaries this week are autobiographical essays from individuals whose experiences in community college opened doors that were previously unimaginable.   The first is by a student who entered Norwalk Community College in Connecticut without proficiency in English and continued her higher education eventually obtaining a Ph.D. at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), ultimately finding rewarding employment in a multinational corporation. The second piece was written by a student who started at Community College of Philadelphia, received a baccalaureate and masters degree in social work from Bryn Mar College, and is now working as a mental health therapist in the very first community she lived in, as well as teaching developmental math part-time at Bryn Mar College. The final piece was written by a faculty member and co-chair of Social Sciences at Greenfield Community College in Massachusetts, who as a first-generation, community college student found his way, and developed a sense of belonging in higher ed, that paved the way to pursuing a PhD in Sociology, and returning to teach at the community college.

- Robin G. Isserles and David Levinson

Pathways to Possibilities was on all the posters that were placed throughout the campus of the Community College of Philadelphia (CCP) in 2010. It wasnt my first time being a student there, and, to be perfectly honest, I couldnt tell you if that was the catch phrase used before. It wouldnt have mattered anyway, because in that moment, I was no surer of my pathways or possibilities than Id been when I sat in a college classroom for the first time in August 1984 on Penn States Abington Campus. I have recently begun to describe that time in my life and that part of my academic journey like the maiden trip South by a Negro on a train during Reconstruction/Jim Crow. Penn State Abington was the time when the conductor would have told me to move to the Negro car on the train.

Penn State was the first time I was in a predominantly White institution (PWI), and the closest I had ever been to public school. Before that, I had been a product of inner-city Catholic schools that were largely integrated, if not predominantly Black. The instructors were all White, except for Father Joe, who taught geometry at my high school. By the time I took his class, my interest in math was fading fast, but still it was nice to have a brown face in the front of the room. While at Penn State, I had my first African American woman instructor. She taught speech communications, and it was the only class that I excelled in while thereand likely the reason I wanted to be a telecommunication major, even though I didnt know what it was. My memories of Penn State consist of negative feedback, when I got any at all from the instructors, and the massive, impersonal classes that my White counterparts were able to skip without being noticed.

To clarify the Negro-on-a-train-analogy, while at Penn State, I eventually gravitated to the smaller game room in the campus center with the other students of colormy version of all the Black kids sitting together at lunch. I would learn at the Black Student Union meeting that each of us had a similar experience: seeing the size of the White student population in the larger cafeteria next to the game room, with its highly priced bad food, and deciding that chips and sodas in the game room would not only sustain you, but afford you the opportunity to play games and bond with other marginalized students. It was as secretary of the Black Student Union that I joined the fight to have a Black studies course taught on campus. Even as we followed the procedures to get the course approved, it was ultimately the refusal of the only qualified professor to teach the course that made it clear how problematic we were, as viewed by the larger campus population and faculty. None of that is why I dropped out of Penn State: That honor would go to the business philosophy class I took that made it very clear that capitalism was no place for a person who used a moral compassthis, and all the behaviors of drunk, uninhibited, unsupervised White kids. I took a hard pass and never showed up for my sophomore year.

It would take an experience with a good friend and almost 10 years for me to enroll in a class at CCP for the first time. She was a middle-aged Black woman who was going to school to get her masters in psychology. After getting a C on her first paper, she asked for my help. We got a B on the next paper. I found that I was I enjoying the challenges of decoding the prompt and using her textbooks and class notes to write these papers. I missed school, I missed learning something new and finding new applications for that new knowledge. When we got an A on our final paper, I was finally convinced to take a class at CCP. It also helped that I was in a good place with a decent job at the Marriott, which provided tuition reimbursement to employees.

Life happenedas it doesand it wasnt until Barack Obama was elected president and began pushing the narrative of the need for everyone to have a college degree that I decided to return to CCP. With a Pathways to Possibilities invitation to an open house in hand, I arrived and met Big Mike, one of the head recruiters. When I told him about my academic history, he took me over to Lindsay, who oversaw the My Degree Now program. She was able to expedite all the needed paperwork that allowed me to get a full scholarship based on my GPA and status as a returning student. As it turned out, I only needed eight more classes to earn an associates degree. To balance this with my job, I needed to take classes on the same days, which is how I found myself taking a sociology of gender class. It sounded interesting, and it fit the time I needed to be on campus for another class. I had no way of knowing how that class, and the woman who taught it, would forever change my life and extend my academic pathway beyond CCP.

When I entered the sociology class, I was taking in what Id already grown accustomed to as a student at CCP: the diversity in the classroomstudents of different ages, races, and cultures. I was never the youngest or oldest person in the room, never the only person of color, and everyone had a story to tellwhich is exactly what we were doing when Professor Handler walked in the room. Before that first class was over, she had already changed the way I saw and experienced the diversity in the room. By the end of the first week, I knew that I would need to make changes in my life to accommodate this strange desire I had to know everything about sociology. Professor Handler was working as my mentor long before I mustered the courage to ask her, and I hardly got the ask out of my mouth before she said yes. By this time, Id already completed the needed courses, but I wanted to take some more sociology classes at CCP while I decided where I would apply for transfer. Professor Handler suggested a school called Bryn Mawr College (BMC). I had never heard of BMC, and I took a closer look. With my earlier experience hanging in the background, the woman who would be my dean at BMC, Christina Rose, would have to leave several messages before I finally accepted the offer to go there.

I could detail the way I completed my bachelors at BMC, and then my masters degree at the Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research at BMC. I could share all the ways that my foundational understanding of sociology made the trip from my house to the campus a layered and complex experience, and that it still does. I could go on about the many times Ive considered pursuing a doctoral program, and how everything that Ive learned and experienced in the last 12 years has changed my path considerably.

What Ill tell you instead is that all that I have donethe work I do now as a mental health therapist at a community-based mental health facility in the first community I lived in, as well as teaching a remedial math class at BMCis exactly what Im supposed to be doing. And this road that Im on started when I went to CCP.

Just before my graduation, I was speaking with my English professor, Dr. Paul Wright, telling him how life-changing the two years at CCP had been for me. I felt like I belonged in a classroom again, learning and being challenged and pushed. The teachers I had not only taught me, but also saw me. And that they saw me allowed me to see the Pathways to Possibilities. I thought back to standing in empty halls on late nights, finishing yet another conversation with Professor Handler, and looking at those posters and finally getting it.

So, it makes perfect sense that at 55, Im making outreach calls and having coffee with the league of female professors that I have amassed on this pathway to discuss what the next miles of my academic possibilities may look like.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: February 16, 2022
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23986, Date Accessed: 2/22/2022 10:36:20 AM

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About the Author
  • Dawn-Stacey Joyner
    Bryn Mawr College
    E-mail Author
    DAWN-STACEY JOYNER is a mental health therapist at Wedge Medical Center in Philadelphia. She is also an interim instructor at Bryn Mawr College. She holds a master of social service (MSS) from Bryn Mawr College.
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