Does Your College Deserve Respect?

E at CU

“I’ve got a sweater that says ‘Montgomery College’ on it, but I only wear it here or at home—not anywhere else.”

“Why not?”

“Because it’s an embarrassment that I’m here. I can’t wait to get out.”

A friend of mine recently posted this conversation she had overheard from students in the community college bookstore. She shared how sad the comments made her, saying, “I was too tired to intervene in the conversation with the cheer it would have taken to respond the right way…anyway – give him ten years and he will realize just how important MC was to him…I know DOZENS of really successful people who came here.”

Her story resonated with me because I understand just how that student feels. And I’m certain my friend is right that the young man will come to appreciate his education there. But even in ten years, he may not wear that shirt or tell anyone except those he trusts that he earned his first credits at Montgomery College.

Trust me—I know. I graduated from Concord College (now Concord University) in Athens, West Virginia, a venerable institution that I was fortunate enough to attend with the help of a financial aid package of scholarships, grants, and work study. I went on to teach for nine years in a state where anyone who graduated from college—and particularly anyone who came from poverty—was respected, no matter which institution had awarded the degree.

But then I moved to the Washington suburbs. I was ecstatic to secure a job in Montgomery County Public Schools and delighted that Concord had given me a superb liberal arts education and a toolbox for passing on what I’d learned to my students.

What I was not prepared for was the tone of the conversations about college admissions. I came from a place where the only competition among college alumni revolved around sports to a place where the competition extended to the academic reputation of the institution. Many of the people I encountered, including the most politically liberal, seemed to me obsessed with getting their children into the most highly selective colleges and universities. And the more often I heard these conversations, the more reluctant I became to share my own college experience.

As the demographics in Montgomery County began to shift and more children whose families had never attended college came into our classrooms, many school leaders asked staff members to wear their own college gear on dress-down Fridays so that students would have a visible reminder of all the colleges that could be in their future if they worked hard.

By that point in my career, I didn’t even own a Concord shirt, and I’m not sure I would have worn it even if I had. I had long since learned to be reticent in adult conversations about colleges. I continued to wear casual professional clothing on those days, though I was teased a bit. I never divulged my true reason, even to one of my closest colleagues, when he said affectionately, “You’re such a Southern belle. I don’t think I’ve even seen you in jeans.”

The demographics would shift for a few more years before I returned home for a high school reunion and asked my husband if he would mind making a visit to Concord on the way. As we drove through the towering pines that lined the entrance, I cried, overwhelmed with the beauty and the nostalgia of being in the place that had changed my life. We strolled the campus, and I proudly pointed out my favorite places—the library, where I’d spent so many hours immersed in books, and the admin building that had once housed the English classrooms. We ended our visit in the university store, where I bought two shirts and a jacket bearing the Concord University logo.

Suburban liberals could learn a lot from my friends in West Virginia, who believe that any person who works hard, no matter what the job, deserves respect. That respect also confers to those who haven’t been to college—to the plumbers and electricians and hair stylists who earned their certification at the vocational school—and even to those who may not have finished high school but who work hard at low-wage jobs to provide for their families.

The climate that leads a student to be ashamed he’s going to community college has far-reaching effects for our children. We have to find a way to create a world where all children know that college is possible without making them feel that if they want to go into the military or to a vocational school, that is somehow a path that has less dignity.

I understand that we liberals don’t want any student to be tracked. And if students do choose a non-college path, we need to ensure that they can read well enough to earn an electrician’s certification or, if they change their minds, to go to college without having to take remedial classes.

But how on earth have we created a world where a student would be ashamed of going to college—to any college? We liberals are responsible for that. And we must do better.

Note: The opinions expressed here are my own views as a child of poverty and are not intended to reflect the views of my employer or any of my associates.

2 thoughts on “Does Your College Deserve Respect?”

  1. thank you Estelene. I have always been ashamed that I didn’t finish college. I was raising my family instead. Now I have other commitments that are taking priority. Maybe someday…

  2. Catching up on some old reading, I just came across this essay, which I had not finished when you posted it in October. Matt is a high school senior now and facing the college challenge himself, and I see all of his concerns and issues reflected in your essay.

    A few things strike me that I have to ask you about, and I hope you have a chance to reply. First, regarding remedial classes, I understand the indignity of being forced into such classes, but aren’t they necessary for students who arrive at college without the basic skills for college-level work? Maybe they could be renamed to remove the stigma, but I can’t think of another way to bridge the gap between the rubber-stamp achievement of a high school diploma and the skills needed for any decent college course.

    Second, I am curious about why you feel that liberals are responsible for students being ashamed to go to some colleges. I believe this is a socio-economic leaning more than a political bent. Suburbia is filled with college-educated liberals and conservatives who went to college and assume that their children will go as well.

    Finally, I know firsthand the attitude expressed toward Montgomery College and I find it sad as well, but I can also understand it. My son is almost certainly headed there, and he accepts, but does not embrace, that it’s the best choice for him. He is resigned to the reality that he will miss out on the typical college experience of starting as a freshman, living in a dorm, going to big-time collegiate games, and staying in the same school for the duration. He sees my strong ties to Virginia Tech, to my friends from college, to my ongoing affiliations, and knows that he will likely miss out on all of those experiences. He has come a long, long way since he was a child struggling in grade school, and we’re excited that college is in his plans, but his path will be unique and non-traditional. Yes, he’s grateful for the chance to go to college at all. But he is also very aware that he won’t have the same stories and memories that his mother, father, and sister have enjoyed and shared over the years.

    Thanks as always for provoking open and honest dialogue on these issues!


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