I think about community colleges a lot. This might sound like an obvious statement considering I work at one. But I think about how we, as a society, talk about and respond to community colleges—or don’t. They are institutions that serve people of all ages, interests, and backgrounds, which I consider to be one of the most exciting parts of working at a reference desk at a community college library. Having said that, I also consider how college is ingrained in the public imagination.
There is an assumption that community colleges are for people who do not get into “real” college, ignoring the fact that community colleges are, in fact, real institutions of higher education. There is also the myth that the quality of higher education a student receives at community college is substandard, ignoring the fact that many professors who teach at community colleges also teach the same exact course, or a similar course, at four-year institutions. There is a misconception that people who graduate from community college will not succeed in life, even though we have seen time and time again that myth is unfounded.
I reflect on the reactions I receive when I tell people I am a librarian, and one of the places I work is at a community college. Sometimes the conversation ends right then and there. Other times, there is a brief “Great” or “Good for you,” which often comes across as patronizing, whether the person saying it meant for it to be intended that way or not. Occasionally, there is a story about how a friend of a friend went to community college, but they are doing fine now, as if community college is a condition that people must overcome or endure.
In TV shows and movies, books and magazine articles, college is often portrayed as students exploring the amenities of a four-year college or experiencing dorm life for the first time. The college experience is not often portrayed as a student who is still living at home while juggling coursework and a full-time or part-time job. It is rarely portrayed as someone returning to school as an older adult to further their career or learn a new skill. Yet, these are the faces of community college students, and their experiences are no less valid than students who attend four-year institutions.
We can go ahead and say it: The stigma surrounding community college is rooted in classism and elitism, and we cannot talk about either of those subjects without talking about racism. How does this relate to librarianship? The same assumptions people have about community college students are often the same assumptions people have about those who work at community colleges. And it is up to us, as library staff, to counter those assumptions.
One of the joys of working with community college students is working with students who look like myself or my family. I can relate to the student who is living at home while working full-time and attending school-part time because that was my cousin. I can sympathize with the student who takes two buses to campus to find a quiet place to study because that was my other cousin. I can connect with a mom returning to school as an older adult, worried about balancing childcare and homework, because that was my aunt.
It is often thought that those who work at community colleges should be taking advice and seeking guidance from those who work at four-year institutions, and that four-year institutions have little to learn from community colleges. But, as Meredith Farkas mentions in an older, yet still relevant post:
“Community college libraries have longer been scrutinized by outside entities and so have longer had to play the accountability game. Their more singular focus on student success and learning encourages a focus on assessment for and about learning. And I’d argue that their long history of being resource-constrained (by-and-large) has led in many cases to real creativity…There’s a lot we could learn from the approaches community colleges have taken to engaging in assessment practice.”
Meredith Farkas, You could learn a lot from us: community college librarians at ACRL
As Meredith aptly points out, it is most often other community college staff who are interested in the future of community colleges. If your institution receives a lot of students who are transferring from community colleges, why wouldn’t you want to learn more about those schools and their student bodies?
As academic librarians, we often move and work in silos. We, as library staff, must change that. That said, instead of arguing that we should do a better job of communicating with each other, I maintain that academic librarians at four-year institutions should be aware of and appreciative of the work that their colleagues at community colleges are doing under tight deadlines, budgets, and scrutiny.
In a time when institutions of higher education are continually being examined by outside parties, four-year institutions have much to learn from community colleges on how to succeed when others are questioning your right to exist in the first place.