[La Guardia] Community College Students Face a Very Long Road to Graduation

6 Oct

05COMMUNITY1-articleLargeJake Naughton for The New York Times (click)

A beautiful piece of journalism by Ginia Bellafante from October 3rd’s New York Times on New York’s community colleges and the struggle of their mostly minority and immigrant population to make it through:  “Community College Students Face a Very Long Road to Graduation.”:

“LaGuardia was founded in 1971 out of the struggles for a more egalitarian world that had characterized the previous decade. At any time, it has approximately 50,000 students from 150 countries who among them speak 129 languages. [my emphasis]  In February, Mayor Bill de Blasio chose the college as the site of his first State of the City address. Gail O. Mellow, the president of LaGuardia and a community college graduate who went on to get her doctorate, has been an entrepreneurial and enlightened leader, forging relationships with Goldman Sachs, for instance, and the Japanese government. The school recently won a $2.9 million grant from the United States Department of Education for a proposal to enhance student engagement; it was one of 24 colleges to be awarded money, in a competition that drew 500 applicants.

And still its challenges, like those of nearly every other community college, can appear insurmountable. More than 70 percent of LaGuardia students come from families with incomes of less than $25,000 a year. The college reports that 70 percent of its full-time students who graduated after six years transferred to four-year colleges, compared with just 18 percent nationally, but only a quarter of LaGuardia students received an associate degree within six years.”

I taught ESL at La Guardia for over ten years.  At times it was a frustrating experience.  I felt like the administration was not really up-front with students about precisely some of the issues this article covers — like how long it usually takes to graduate — leaving too many to believe that they’d do two years at a community college and then two more at a four-year college and get a Bachelor’s.  I don’t envy the positions of department heads or administrators in these colleges: they have to come up with the funds necessary to keep things running in order to serve their population but at times have to do so in ways that shortchanges or maybe even exploits those students.

In my more specific case as an English teacher, the pedagogical mentality or philosophy of TESOL (Teaching of English as a Second Language) — if it can even be called a real discipline with a philosophy — and that of most of my colleagues’ and my department’s, is stuck with a historic burden of “remedialness” that informed a lot of instruction and that left many of our best students — all immigrants, of usually middle-class and fairly well-educated backgrounds and with full literacy skills in their own languages — often feeling infantilized and bored.  And one program I taught for — a big money-maker for the college — gave any one who registered for a full-time schedule a student visa of seemingly infinite renewableness, with only minimal attendance and academic requirements, and, as you would expect, these classes ended up full of kids from Seoul or Caracas whose daddies were paying for them to hang out in New York for two or three years, often unbearable brats impossible to teach and resentful that they had to be sitting in your class and not hanging out on Bedford Avenue — nothing like the poignant life-struggles of the student that Bellafante describes.  And my often angry clashes with the administration about those conditions — I wanting to maintain some degree of academic integrity and discipline and the department afraid that demanding too much of the students would lead to business at their “visa-mart” dropping off — was what ultimately led to my being fired in 2010.

At the same time, and for the most part, it was perhaps the most rewarding experience of my life and one I miss intensely.  There is still a strong sense at La Guardia of its being born “out of the struggles for a more egalitarian world.”  The neighborhoods of western Queens and northwestern Brooklyn that La Guardia serves are to the 1990s and 2000s what the Lower East Side was to New York at the beginning of the 1900s: the cauldron out of which a new city was and is emerging.  The opportunity to work right in the thick of this momentous historic process and in fact, not just to be able to help students learn a language and literature I love (yes, ESL students are interested in literature…and poetry…and journalism…and politics…and have opinions on all of the above) but also to help them learn or at least understand a little about a country I respect and the city I’m ferociously loyal to, was an amazing privilege.  And while being able to ease, as a teacher and even if only a bit, the pain or frustrations of being an immigrant made me feel like I was giving people like my own parents a tiny bit of support, what the students gave back to me — in terms of knowledge of their cultures, their openness and hospitality, their respect and affection — was incomparably greater.  How many of us get to experience so fully what might just be the very essence of New York? …four hundred years of reciprocal generosity between city and newcomer.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

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