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Community colleges are helping to transform America

November 14, 2018

I am an American educator. My job is hard, and I sometimes feel like I’m fighting a losing battle.

I manage a writing center at Palo Alto College, one of five campuses that make up the Alamo College system. Our campus is located on the South Side, a part of the city that is said to be poor relative to other parts of San Antonio.

In a former life, I was in the classroom full time. I taught a variety of writing, research, literature and critical thinking classes to university students in America and abroad. Many of the places I taught were considered “selective,” meaning only the very brightest or most well-connected were admitted. Often, their primary purpose in studying at such a university was to get a degree that would help them maintain their privileged position in society. These prestigious institutions of higher learning have historically played a conservative role by educating the next generation of elites, thus ensuring that prevailing class structures remain intact.

Meanwhile, the children of the poor and uneducated don’t often enroll in universities — elite or otherwise. Instead, they immediately go to work rather than attend college, getting trapped in dead-end jobs that pay little more than subsistence wages.

Those of us who’ve left the university and are now working in places like Palo Alto College are part of the revolution. I don’t mean that we are attempting to overthrow the government or anything like that. We are playing important roles in turning things upside down. In a nation where the postsecondary system of education is rigged in favor of the haves, community colleges are set up to serve the have-nots. This makes what we do a bit “subversive.”

Many of those who come to our writing center for help are first-generation college students, meaning they’ve grown up in families where neither of their parents went to college or have degrees. This puts them at a great disadvantage when compared to “continuing generation” students who are reared expecting to attend college because their parents did so. At least one study has argued that first-generation students lack the sort of “cultural capital” needed to understand how higher education works and what one needs to do to survive and thrive in a competitive educational setting. It is my job to help them begin to acquire this capital so they can complete associate degrees, acquire job certification and put down the sort of foundation that will prepare some of them to transfer to universities.

When I begin to feel tired or hopeless at work, I remind myself that I am playing a role, albeit a small one, in helping to affect dramatic change. Many of us know that things are going terribly wrong in this country at this time. A lot of what’s amiss is rooted in the extreme economic inequality that separates the haves from the have-nots. Many of us understand that such a situation, where the income gap continues to widen, is utterly unsustainable and a threat to democracy.

Those who call themselves patriots and believe in democracy need to be supporters of Palo Alto College and institutions like it. Our current system of governance is only possible when we find ways to democratize economics. Educating the masses, and providing them with the tools they need to wrest away some economic power from the few who’ve long had more than their fair share, is a way of ensuring that some modicum of social justice prevails in this country.

Troy Headrick is a writer, traveler, political activist and educator who manages a writing center at Palo Alto College.

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