Identity, Integrity, and Purpose: How Community College Prepared Me for an Academic Career
by Brian Kapitulik - February 16, 2022
This commentary tells the story of how one sociologist’s experience as a community college student set him on an unlikely path to academia.
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
I recently went to my 30-year high school reunion. As is the custom at such events, much of the conversation revolved around three basic questions: How is your family? Where are you living nowadays? And, what are you doing for work? Talking about my family and where I live was pretty straightforward and customary. But when I talked about work life and how Ive spent the last 15 years in an academic career, the reactions were interesting. To most of my former classmates, this was surprising. I was an underperforming high school student who was mainly interested in extracurricular activitiesschool sanctioned and otherwise. So how did I end up as a college professor and, for a time, academic dean? As I explain next, my experience in community college had a lot to do with it.
Though I have long felt comfortable and at home working in community college, it wasnt until recently that I began to develop a richer vocabulary to explain my situation. About a year ago, I reread The Courage to Teach, Parker Palmers (2017) classic book on the spiritual dimensions of teaching. In this book, Palmer makes a simple, yet profound, claim: Good teachers join self and subject and students in the fabric of life (p. 11). This synthesis is achieved when there is congruence between the identity and integrity of the teacher. By identity, Palmer is referring to an evolving nexus where all the forces that constitute my life converge in the mystery of self (p. 13), including our genetic heritage, social and cultural contexts, formative relationships, values, and lived experiences. He describes integrity as whatever wholeness I am able to find with that nexus as its vectors form and re-form the pattern of my life (p. 14). According to Palmer, integrity entails a discernment process of figuring out what is important to my selfhood and then relating to those forces in ways that bring me wholeness and life rather than fragmentation and death (p. 14).
For me, community college is where I began the profound process of finding harmony between identity and integrity and an emerging sense of wholeness that propelled me into a rich and rewarding academic career. However, the beginnings of my collegiate experience were inauspicious. As a first-generation, working-class student, I was woefully underprepared as I attempted to navigate my way into college. Unlike my middle-class peers, I lacked the cultural capital that would have helped me understand what to do and why. I had no clear sense of why I even wanted to go to college or what I would study. I thought it was just something I had to do. So, left to my own devices, I took the SATsthough I didnt take them seriouslywrote an uninspired personal statement, and muddled my way through the college application process. Somehow I managed to gain admission to a local four-year state university. I immediately felt like a fish out of water. There were far too many people I didnt know. Most of them seemed smarter than me, and I had no interest in the courses I was assigned to take (I didnt know it was up to me to choose my course of study. I naively took whatever courses an advisor told me to take). Not surprisingly, I floundered. After about a month, I found myself in the Dean of Students Office, talking my way into a complete withdrawal from the university.
Three years later, I found myself back in college for a second try. This time, I went to community college. This was where the threads of identity and integrity began to be connected. I attribute this to three main aspects of my community college experience. First, in community college, I found a place where I belonged. This was due in large part to the characteristics of the other studentsor at least my perception of the other students. In community college, I found myself surrounded by other working-class and nontraditional students. Some were older than average, some were nonnative English speakers, some had families, and most had jobs. What we all seemed to have in common was a commitment to learning. We were taking it seriously. Whats more, I had a sense that, like me, most didnt have it all figured out. They were in college to try to discern their path and increase their skills and confidence to reach their goals. Equally important to my sense of belonging was the faculty. They made me feel like I was not a distraction to their real work, but a welcome part of their role at the college (a stark contrast, I would later learn, to how many faculty regard students in larger, research-oriented universities). Faculty were patient, kind, understanding, and encouraging. They seemed to be genuinely interested in my success.
Second, it was in community college where I developed my first relationship with a mentor. My first mentor was a first-generation, working-class student from a single-parent household, like I am. He was an English faculty member at the college who was simultaneously working his way through a doctoral program. When I reflect on what it was about this relationship that was so important, it came down to two things. First, he took interest in me beyond my role as a student. It was during this time that I was dealing with some significant challenges in my personal life. When I confided in him about what was going on, he insisted on doing whatever he could to help me out. He connected me with the professional resources I needed to work through this issue. Without his help, I would have been adrift, trying to figure things out on my own. Second, he managed to demystify the whole process of being successful in college, earning a degree, and even pursuing an academic position. His irreverence for the trappings of academia and his example of accomplishment in the field made me feel like this was something that was attainable. He lauded me for my emerging academic skills and encouraged me to further my studies, wherever they may lead. The spark had been lit!
That spark took on new intensity when I discovered sociology! Finding a field of study that helped me deepen my sense of identity was a third way in which community college prepared me for an academic career. In sociology, I discovered a captivating new framework for understanding the world around me. It validated my experiences and gave me the conceptual vocabulary to express what I was seeing, thinking, and feeling. Sociology felt like a new lens that would forever change how I would see the world. Similar to Parker Palmers reaction to first discovering sociology, I was astonished at this new vision of life in which people walked about, not freely, as I had imagined, but controlled by strings attached to their minds and hearts by invisible puppeteers (p. 27). I was unbound from the cultural myth of individualism, which tends to exclusively blame (or credit) individuals for their lot in life and ignores historical patterns, institutional practices, and cultural norms. Instead, I began to recognize the world as a place in which our individual agency is bracketed by social structures. To paraphrase Karl Marx, I was able to see that we make our own history, but not under conditions of our own choosing. As a first-generation, working-class student from a single-parent household, I found this perspective to be simultaneously liberating and infuriating. It was liberating because it shed new light on some of the struggles that my family and I had endured and helped to shift some of the burden of blame onto structural factors; at the same time, it was infuriating to recognize the often invisible mechanisms of power and privilege that maintain systems of inequality. Discovering this remarkable field of inquiry in community college set me on a path of discovery that would remain constant throughout my career.
Thinking back to those conversations I had at my high school reunion, I dont remember exactly how I explained to my former classmates how I ended up with an academic career. I imagine it was a self-deprecating shoulder shrug, followed by a modest, I know . . . crazy, right? The fact is, it was my experience in community college that put me on the path to academia. The sense of belonging and camaraderie I felt among my peers, the support from my professors, the inspiring and encouraging guidance I received from a faculty mentor who had a background similar to mine, and the discovery of the fascinating field of sociology all launched me toward a richly rewarding career. Over the past 15 years, my commitment to this fundamentally democratic and life-changing institution has only deepened. I am filled with enormous gratitude to have found a discipline I love, an institution that I am committed to, and a role that allows me to weave it all together in one integrated tapestry of identity, integrity, and purpose.
Palmer, P. J. (2017). The courage to teach: Exploring the inner landscape of a teacher's life (20th anniversary ed.). Wiley.