By Environmental Illness Network, CC-BY-NC-ND

I believe student stories hold potential to dispel some of the myths that of shape the mental models that undermine change in higher education.  One of my own online community college students recently shared his story with me.  As I read it, I am reminded of so many others that have inspired me over the past 10+ years of community college teaching — a student who was severely burned in an accident, several students with cancer, an online student awaiting an organ transplant, a student completing her college degree online to avoid being stalked by her ex-husband, a student with epilepsy who was fighting to complete her first college class, and countless online students who gave birth during the semester.

The student story I share below is now part of me. I will carry it with me and allow it to remind me why I love teaching at a community college and advocate wholeheartedly for their support.  As you read this story, I encourage you to reflect on your own perceptions about community colleges and online learning and discover if this story challenges or supports them.  Enjoy!

The following story is shared with permission from a former online student who will remain anonymous.

“I attended Brigham Young in Utah for 2 semesters as a freshman in college. In my family, attending BYU wasn’t so much a matter of “if” but rather a matter of ‘when.’ My family is deeply rooted in the Mormon faith, so as a High School Senior who secretly didn’t share the same faith, I was conflicted but I went to BYU anyway. After my freshman year of college, everything reached a boiling point when the pressure came to serve on a 2-year Mormon mission. I knew I couldn’t preach something I didn’t believe myself, so I used the opportunity to finally be truthful with my parents. I did not share their faith, I was leaving Brigham Young and I was gay. This marked the beginning of a bittersweet period in my life. On one hand, I was free to live a life of my own. On the other, I was left without financial or emotional support to continue my education. After about 6 months of dead end jobs and living on my own to support myself, I knew I had to make a change. 
As I researched schools to transfer to, I became distraught at the staggering cost of college, expenses I would have to come up with on my own. One day, a family friend told me about how she was attending a local community college and was able to afford it with financial aid and scholarships. I enrolled and began taking classes while working full time. When I arrived on the community college campus, I was ashamedly surprised. In High School, community college has a reputation as the place where “dropouts go” or “a dead-end”. However, I saw something very different. I saw a handful of professors that were deeply passionate about their topics and teaching. I saw an opportunity to explore many different disciplines that interested me throughout the humanities and social sciences. I saw a diverse group of students from all walks of life working to overcome adversity and build their futures. I enrolled in the Honors Enrichment Program, and took classes that felt on par (and sometimes more rigorous) than the ones I took at a prestigious private university. Also, I made an important choice that made all the difference while in community college; I sought out leadership roles. Being engaged in student leadership, clubs and extracurricular activities weaves you into the fabric of an institution in ways not possible otherwise. (Sidenote: I’d like to see more opportunities like this for “distance learners”. I’m curious how it could be made possible.) 
After 3 great semesters at the community college, I still had little idea of a major or career path. So I embarked on a 2 year adventure with AmeriCorps NCCC, a national service program that sends 18-24 year olds to serve their country building trails, reconstructing homes and doing disaster relief. The federal program awards a scholarship for every term of service (10 months), and is equivalent to a pell-grant (approx. $5,700). I decided to put online education to the test during my service. With a rigorous and demanding schedule, I was nervous I wouldn’t be able to keep up. I was also worried that Online Learning just simply wasn’t a suitable environment to learn. This is what I discovered: the online classroom has the potential to teach, inspire, and engage in ways I had previously deemed impossible. However, not all online classes are this way. I took two classes last semester, one from an ENGAGED professor and one from a DISENGAGED professor. One utilized new tech, creative assignments, and fostered a learning community while the other used outdated content and did little to nourish a community of student learning (One sign of this may be that I cannot remember even a single name of my peers in that class, whereas in my ENGAGED online class, I remember many names and personalities). 
After completing my service with AmeriCorps in late November, I have returned to Southern California to finish the courses I need for transfer. I am returning to the physical campus with a new understanding and faith in online learning. In many ways, being in online classes while traveling across the Southeastern United States kept me engaged in learning and familiar with the habit of studying and deadlines. All in all, I have been incredibly grateful for my time at the community college, whether on campus or online, because it has allowed me to create an affordable liberal arts education for myself that feels much less like a “dead end” and more like the beginning of something pretty awesome.”

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