• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.

Title

Undiscovered Talent in Unlovely Places

Addressing basic needs.

September 18, 2019
 
 

Once in a while, we get one really right.

On Tuesday, my college formally launched its Helping Hands Lounge. It’s a lovely, well-appointed place on the second floor that serves as both a food pantry and a peaceful retreat from the rest of the college. It will be staffed by folks with backgrounds in counseling. It’s a result of years of work, combining on-campus volunteers, the state Community College Opportunity Grant program, Fulfill (the Monmouth and Ocean County food bank), Jon Bon Jovi’s restaurant in Red Bank, the Girl Scouts, the Lincroft Bible Church, several community partners, and Brookdale’s own resources marshaled through the academic master plan. The lounge has grab-and-go items, but also a microwave and coffee so students can get something hot. That may not matter much now, but in February, it’ll make a difference.

Additionally, as part of the partnership with the county, the mobile food pantry from Fulfill will visit the main campus of Brookdale once a month, bringing pallets of fresh fruits and vegetables (and apparently some baked goods) for students to take home. It came today; I saw a line of students walk through with bags of food to take home. One man mentioned that he has four kids at home; he was visibly relieved to hear that the mobile food bank will be back on a regular basis. He took two full bags.

It’s not just food. In the past year, Brookdale faculty’s adoption of OER has saved students over $1 million, by my back-of-the-envelope numbers, and adoption continues to grow.

And this fall we have our first group of students who received free tuition through the state CCOG program.

Taken together, it’s gratifying. Students of modest means can get free tuition, free food and free textbooks (or textbook equivalents). We’re actually trying.

Monmouth County is an affluent area, but the affluence isn’t evenly shared. Some people are really struggling. It has high housing prices, but many of the jobs in the area are low paying. For students from families who are barely hanging on, it can be tough to build positive momentum.

Obviously, none of this is a substitute for a fairer economy, or for some public policy choices that the country could have made and didn’t. Transportation remains a tough nut to crack, given that the entire county was built around cars. We don’t have dorms, so high housing prices remain largely unaddressed.

But I’m happy and proud to be able to say that in the last few years, we’ve taken concrete steps to make some folks’ journeys easier.

The #RealCollege movement has gained real momentum over the last few years, but its core insights are as old as Western philosophy. Aristotle held that manual laborers, women and slaves should not participate in politics, as they were too mired in the muck of daily existence to contemplate larger issues. Machiavelli famously communed with the ghosts of the ancients in an oak-lined study, free from doing the grubby work of making a living. Virginia Woolf noted that to do good creative work, a woman needs a room of her own with a locking door. It’s hard to focus on abstract or complicated ideas when you’re hungry, cold and scared. When you aren’t worried about where your next meal is coming from, it’s easier to lose yourself in academic work.

Community colleges’ most endearing trait is the faith that absolutely everybody deserves a shot at bettering themselves. That faith is out of fashion these days, as the larger political culture has been engulfed in discussions of walls, camps and deportations. But there’s something deeply wise about giving everybody a chance. As the saying goes, talent is evenly distributed, but opportunity isn’t. If hunger is the barrier to talent, well, we know how to fix hunger to let the talent out.

When the academic master plan came out, listing “student basic needs” as a core focus, I got some skeptical feedback to the effect that food pantries aren’t really academic. That struck me as misguided. The point of what we do is to empower people with education; we can’t do that if people have to drop out to make enough money to eat. In their varying ways, Aristotle, Machiavelli and Woolf knew that. We know it, too. A brilliant instructor can’t do much with an empty classroom.

When I started my community college career, none of these issues were at the forefront. I hate to think about how many students suffered in silence or dropped out and blamed themselves when basic physical needs became prohibitive. We’re still nowhere near where we need to be. But we’re starting to show respect for students the economy doesn’t respect at all. We’re taking seriously the prospect of undiscovered talent hiding in unlovely places. It’s exactly what we should be doing. Just ask the students -- and their kids.

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