Monday, April 4, 2011

What Pit Bulls and Community College Students Have in Common

So Jeremy and I decided it is finally the right time for us to get a puppy. In addition to writing a book, this has been another one of my life-long dreams. So this weekend we set out to the local shelters to see if there were any puppies that were right for us. And while we didn’t find our puppy this weekend, I found something very profound.

After spending some time with the jovial adult dogs in the outside corridor we turned to leave the humane society when we passed a concrete puppy room with one very small black pit bull puppy curled up as tight as it could, shaking in a corner – not your typical puppy behavior. It looked very scared and lonely, and possibly sick. As we walked past and read the description, we already knew we couldn’t adopt her because our apartment does not allow pit bulls due to their bad reputation.

But I’ve never personally encountered that stereotype.

Every pit bull I’ve ever met has been so sweet. And so when I saw this puppy, scared and alone, even though I knew I couldn’t adopt it, I stopped and walked into that puppy room to give it some love before we left. I sat down, scooted towards it, and offered my hand. The puppy didn’t budge and still stayed firmly wrapped in the corner. I scooted even closer to let it sniff my hand, but she wasn’t interested. I was about to give up when I figured I might as well just give her one small stroke on the head before I left.

And that was all it took.

Once I touched her she immediately took 3 steps forward and curled up right in my lap and fell asleep. She was just waiting for someone to let her know they cared.

And that is how I felt as a community college “puppy.” And what many of my students explain they felt. We felt alone in a corner, burdened by the stereotype of ending up at a college where “anyone” could get in. We felt scared, that the world didn’t want us, didn’t believe in us.

But for me, and for many of them, it didn’t take long for someone to come along and let us know we were wanted. For me, it was a professor and a few friends. They reminded me that I was wanted, that the stereotype – like almost all stereotypes – was a myth that was only realized when we let how people view us and treat us define who we are.

We are all victims of some sort of societal pit bull-stereotype. And community college students are often defined by some of the starkest stereotypes when it comes to academic expectation. It is assumed we didn’t get good SAT scores, we aren’t independent, we aren’t smart enough to go to a university, we are 2nd class educational citizens.

But just like the pit bull puppy I fell in love with, and the many other lovely adult pit bulls I met this weekend, most of us defy the stereotypes.  

Most of us go to community college because we couldn't afford anything else, because no one taught us about financial aid and scholarships, because no one told us about SAT classes, because we were the first in our family to go to college and no one could guide us down the university path. 

Or because tragedy struck and we needed to be close to home, because we had a family and a job to maintain and needed college to fit into our daily life, because we wanted to save money, or because we came from another country and didn't know what Harvard was and turned down admission in 11th grade. And some of us saw past the stereotypes early and realized that community college was a  small-classroom-private-school type education for a public school cost and jumped at the deal. These are just a few of the reasons I've heard from my students in these past few months. 

Now as we walked throughout the humane society there were a few angry-seeming pit bulls barking in their cages, obviously raised by people who relished and fed the stereotype. But there were a lot of different breeds with that same sort of anger and fear. It seems to depend more on the owner than anything else.

Just as your college success really only depends on you.

Whether you’re at community college or Harvard, you can be exceptional. And in fact I believe some of the most exceptional talent and future leaders and problem solvers of our country are going to come from community colleges. Because community college is a place where everyone can get in. Community college is a place where stereotypes are defied daily.

Community college is a place where brilliance thrives.

How do I know? Because I see it every day.

And sure, there are those slackers who skip class and could care less about their future. But those people are everywhere. Not just at community colleges. 

One of my goals for this blog has always been to change that stereotype (e.g. see the tagline in the headline banner). To remind community college students and the world that community colleges are not dumping grounds for students who couldn’t get into college anywhere else. They are thriving communities of students who are choosing a better life for themselves. Students who needed that open-access open door for a variety of reasons – students who will change our world for the better because they have such rich experience and empathy for some of the greatest problems in our world.

Yet sadly there are always those people that let the stereotypes define them. It can sometimes be too hard to fight against societal expectation, and they surrender their will to be more than expected.

What about you? Are you like the pit bull puppy shaking in a corner, afraid of the world because you feel like it doesn’t want you, doesn’t understand you? Let me pet your head my friend and remind you that you are wanted, you are brilliant, and the only one who can stand in your way is you.

We are all victims of some societal stereotype or another, and it is vital that we ask ourselves if we are succumbing to these narrow-minded assumptions. You can let them scare you, defy you, anger you.

Or, you can triumphantly, graciously, and proudly prove them wrong.

The choice, as always, is yours.

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