Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Benefits of Going to College: The Case of Joanie

            My last few posts have dealt with issues of vocational education, apprenticeships, and college attendance. In this post, I want to continue this discussion by offering an example of a person who is benefitting in some unexpected ways from going to college.
            I have been mentoring a woman named Joanie who in her late-thirties entered a local community college. She had been working for years as a home health care aide, and was very good at it, but wanted to find employment that would be more secure, less physically taxing, and paid a better salary. As she progressed through community college, the goal of social work solidified, and she is now close to transferring to a state university to pursue a B.A. in social work. Joanie’s reasons for entering community college were overwhelmingly economic. If at the outset there were a non-degree training pathway toward solid employment that would have fit her interests, she would have taken it. And I would have recommended it.
            Joanie’s two years at the community college have yielded an increase in her reading and writing skills, in her analytic ability, and in her general knowledge of some areas in the sciences and social sciences. These are expected – but still welcome – outcomes of a general education curriculum. This mix of skills and general knowledge prepares her for further, more specialized and demanding coursework as she transfers to a four-year institution. There’s been an economic tradeoff, of course, in that she has not been working full time as a home health aide while she’s been in school, surviving off financial aid, campus jobs, and an occasional health care gig. But the long-term economic benefit for her studies is predicted to make up for temporary salary losses, so in terms of economics alone, attending college has been a rational move.
            What is interesting in terms of the debate about college attendance is what else has been happening to Joanie.
            Always a reader, she has developed into an avid consumer of print, reading when she first gets up in the morning, looking for “a good book” to read after the pressure of a big test has passed, consuming political news and commentary on the Internet. She has begun writing in a journal and, on her own, does things like examine the way an author opens a piece of writing in order to imitate the author’s technique. Over the past year, she has been travelling the streets of Downtown Los Angeles and East L.A. taking pictures of Mexican murals and stone work, envisioning a magazine she’d like to create that would feature Mexican and Mexican-American art and culture. And, finally, she is electing a silk-screening class on Saturday mornings, getting a great deal of satisfaction from the craft of it and imagining putting some of her photographs of masonry on t-shirts. Whether or not the impulses to do these kinds of literary and artistic projects have always been present in Joanie, I can’t say, but it’s clear from what she tells me that the energy and skills for doing the projects are related to her classes, and the relationships she’s developed with some of her professors, and just the expansive possibility she feels through her achievement in college.
            I talk to Joanie about once a week, and every time she in some way comments on what college means to her, her changes in self-perception and self-respect, and the sense of direction she has about her life. It wasn’t always that way. It took quite a bit of cajoling and hand-holding to get her to attend her first class, a non-credit Saturday offering for new students. She didn’t like it. But she stuck it out, then enrolled as a regular student, still unsure, still ill-at-ease. But gradually Joanie found her way, relying on the tutoring center, and on programs for students like her, and on some sympathetic teachers. “At first,” she says, “it was torture, and now it’s like family.”
            One more thing. Before entering college, Joanie had a cynically comic take on the world, a view born of hardship and gutsiness. What I’ve noticed over the last year is an embellishment of this comic sensibility. Her reading, her browsing of the Internet, her literary experimentations are making their way into her barbs and commentaries, for example, assuming an English herald’s voice (“Hear ye, hear ye…”) to introduce an imagined encounter in one of her classrooms. One’s humor is quite a personal thing, so it’s telling, I think, that Joanie’s education is affecting it, is going that deep into her life.
            In some ways, Joanie is exceptional, and I don’t want to make broad claims based on her case about the need for everyone to pursue a two- or four-year degree. As I argue in my last post, a number of factors are involved in both individual decisions and public policy initiatives regarding college attendance. But Joanie’s case does illustrate several things worth keeping in mind. One is that for some students the college experience can provide a range of benefits that would not be available in a job training or apprenticeship program alone. The second thing to note is that we might not be able to predict in advance—though we might have some indications—as to who would benefit from the courses and activities a college provides. At the outset, I would not have predicted Joanie’s full-hearted embrace of the college experience. A third thing is that the non-strictly-economic advantages of the college curriculum are potentially available to people across the socioeconomic spectrum and across the types of post-secondary institutions. Too often discussions about, for example, the benefits of the liberal arts are focused primarily on advantaged students in elite colleges.

Finally, let’s return to Joanie’s primary motive for attending college: to improve her economic prospects. It is important to acknowledge this fact, but also to notice all the other interests and motives that have emerged within the push to create a better economic future through college. We tend to be reductive and dichotomous in our discussions of the reasons why people want to (or should) go to college. For most of us, major life undertakings result from a web of motives and circumstances, and what drives and sustains us in that undertaking can change, sometimes profoundly, along the way. The same holds for people like Joanie as she tries to better her lot in life by going to college.


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