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Community colleges offer a second chance

Bring me all of your dreams,

You dreamer,

Bring me all your

Heart melodies

That I may wrap them

In a blue cloud-cloth

Away from the too-rough

fingers

Of the world.

-- "The Dream Keeper"

by Langston Hughes

***

As I round the corner of the stairwell, I pass a woman holding a cell phone to her ear and clutching a copy of her grades. "Hi, Mom, guess who's a college graduate?" she squeals. I smile at her exuberance. When students at the South Campus of Erie Community College receive fat acceptance packets from the four-year school of their choice or write essays that garner them coveted scholarships, I celebrate.

Sometimes they're the younger students -- the ones who aimed for post-secondary education in high school. They sacrificed some of the social whirl for decent SAT scores or at least, early in their college career, focused on their studies to make up for ground lost in high school. I exult in their prospects.

Others are older -- men and women who've raised children and begun to explore their own educational options. As one student said, "I always emphasized obtaining an education to my kids. Now my daughter says, 'Why don't you go, Mom? It's your turn.' "

I've known men who work the night shift, go home, shower and arrive in class by 9 a.m.; and women who say, "Saturday mornings are the only time I can take classes because my husband will baby sit." Others, after working a full day, attend evening classes and confess, "This is my time, time for me to discover who I am, and what I'm capable of." A few venture, "I'm what you'd call a down-sized, laid-off, displaced worker. I live from unemployment check to unemployment check, but if there's a chance I can become an occupational therapist, then now's the time to go for it." These people understand the stuff of dreams and push to realize them.

You don't hear the same hopeful "heart melodies" from students who've yet to begin their academic journeys. In the essays I read of incoming students who take ECC's placement test, the voices echo lost opportunities, frustration and regret. "I dropped out of high school, biggest mistake ever." "I did not really try hard in school even knowing I wanted to be a teacher and would need good grades to get into a SUNY school." "My senior year I was lazier than an old dog. I didn't know I'd need school to succeed." "After high school I took a semester off before college, and it turned into 5 years." "I'm 54 years old. I should have continued my education, tried harder when I was young, learned more. I was too busy making money. Now the factory jobs that pay anything are gone."

The "too-rough fingers of the world" have worn down hopes and dreams. "I'm currently a machinist. The job has paid well. I've had a good life, but I never wanted to be a machinist. I wanted to work in the medical field."

Cynics might say, "Too bad. They're dreamers. They made choices. They had their chances." Maybe that's not too harsh an assessment. College isn't like the lottery, which boasts, "All it takes is a dollar and a dream." To achieve, to earn a college degree, requires many more of the former and sterner stuff than the latter. But I've celebrated too many triumphs. I prefer to welcome the dreamers. Because community colleges are all about second chances.

***

Connie Tsujimoto lives in Elma and teaches at Erie Community College South Campus.

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