By Alison Walls

For me, college was an opportunity to delve deeper into subjects I loved (theatre, most of all), and explore others I knew little about (psychology, media studies, and German make an appearance on my transcript). The decision to attend was barely a decision at all. My older sister was already at college, all of my friends from high school were going to college (and most of us went to the same one), and as far as my parents and teachers were concerned, there was no question I would as well. But most of my CUNY students don’t get to make the choice so lightly.

Firstly, I should explain that I am from New Zealand, so there is no such thing as Ivy League, private, public, or community colleges. Sadly higher education is no longer completely free; the same generation that benefited from free education, health and state housing promptly went about deconstructing that support system once they were in the position to do so). But all universities and polytechnical schools (vocational colleges) are state-funded (fees are subsidized by around 70%) and admittance is essentially guaranteed through the successful completion of high school assessments, or, after the age of 20, through “special admission.” Student loans and allowances based on income are available to all. This does not mean that a tertiary education is not a highly expensive undertaking, or that New Zealand is not also experiencing a student debt crisis—far from it! For now, however, it remains substantially more accessible and less hierarchical than the U.S. system.

Secondly, like many of my U.S. counterparts, I come from a white, middle-class, college -educated family. My parents were eager and willing to support my education and I certainly was not expected to support them or other family members, or to consider such responsibilities when planning my university career. I could follow my interests and the rest would follow. In other words, I came from a position of absolute privilege, which smoothed my way through higher  education and allowed me easy access to the deep and lasting rewards of engagement in subjects I loved.

The same is not true for most students, and certainly not for the majority of those in New York’s community colleges. In her recent Op-Ed for The New York Times,  “The Biggest Misconception About Today’s College Students,” LaGuardia Community College president Gail O. Mellow  points out what I have learned to be true from my interactions with students at LaGuardia and, to a lesser degree, at Baruch. Namely, that the 40% of U.S. undergraduates who attend community colleges are likely there not by default, because it was just assumed they would achieve a bachelor’s degree (at least!), or because they wanted to pursue a personal passion or esoteric interest. Rather, they’re motivated by the much more concrete goal of social mobility. Mellow notes that “a two-year degree can earn students 20% more annually than just a high school diploma.” That increased earning power is not to be sniffed at by anybody, but certainly represents more to the low-income, first generation, minority, and first-time students who make up a large proportion of the community college population. About a quarter are also single parents, adding further to the pressure to better their material circumstances. For many of my students, a child is not the only familial responsibility; many are supporting parents, siblings, and extended family— financially, or by contributing to the household or family business, or both. This is frequently the case with first-generation students, who are often more employable than the older generation who (in that familiar phrase) sacrificed themselves to give their children a better life here in the U.S. A quarter are over the age of 25. The choice to attend community college is a determined investment in both their own—and their families’ own—future financial stability and well-being.

This is, to put it simply, admirable. My casual disappointment with students who are late, half-asleep in class, fixated on my telling them “the right answer,” or pestering me about grades while I try to generate analytical discussion has drastically altered with a clearer recognition of the realities of my students’ lives. They are often late or half-asleep because they are working multiple shifts in low-paying jobs, taking their siblings or children to school, and generally helping to support the household. Fixed in my mind, for instance, is the student who remarkably beat me to the classroom for an 8am class. It turned out she had had a 3am shift at Popeyes and it was easier to just come directly to class; after her classes she would be collecting her siblings from school, before heading to yet another shift. If they have served in the military, which is not uncommon, there is a good chance that they may also be contending with PTSD, and I watched one very promising student completely unravel at the end of semester from PTSD-induced alcoholism. For a good number, just being in class already means overcoming non-negligible challenges, and students’ frustrating tunnel vision on grades and spoon-fed answers stems from the external pressure that is frequently their primary reason for being in college in the first place‚ that 20% increased earning capacity.

But this is also the crux of a profound problem. The promised access to the middle-class held out by a college-education is by no means guaranteed. Not all students will successfully complete their associate’s degree and transfer to a four-year school (the numbers are complex, but those who are interested may want to check out the stats cited here, here, and here). This is largely due, I’ve no doubt, to the difficulty of juggling the demands of everyday life with college. There is also a vicious circle, however, in that the external motivations of hoped-for financial stability post-graduation are a poor stimulus for immediate success in the classroom—especially in the English and Communication classes I taught. I believe in the overall benefits of education and the value of critical thinking. I believe, too, in the life-long value of learning to engage with challenging texts. Yet the need to complete frequently creates a mental block between my students and the kind of work in which I am asking them to engage. This problem is compounded by the fact that my courses are often required classes, meaning that my students have no existing interest in English literature, but need high grades in order to get into their desired programs. What do I say to the hard-working, warm-hearted young woman who needs an A to get into the nursing program, who still has a long way to go before she can write an effective essay, but who I have no doubt would make an excellent nurse?

I’m not sure I know yet, but I hope to use this forum to unpack some of these challenges. How can we create intrinsic motivation for our students, while respecting the reality of their material anxieties? How can we offer them the satisfaction of enriched engagement with a variety of subjects, as well as the greater social mobility that tertiary education promises?

Alison Walls is a Ph.D. candidate in Theater at the Graduate Center and  a Humanities Alliance Teaching Fellow. This is the first post in her series on Visible Pedagogy.