How Community College Saved My Life

Dr. Bonita McClain Vinson | Dec 6, 2018

dr-bonita-vinson.jpgIt isn’t often that I tell the story of how attending community college may have saved my life (or at least my future), but I feel compelled to share. My hope is that somehow my story illustrates how critically important the role of community college education is in our country and how vitally important the personnel who work at these institutions are in helping to shape the futures of citizens in this country. So, this publication isn’t really about me as much as it is about those who give of their time, commitment and energy to the students of 2-year colleges.

I’m sure stories similar to mine have been lived by infinitely more people over the last 30 years than any of us are aware of, yet it will probably not grow old. Had it not been for the existence of a local community college during a major life shift, I am convinced that the trajectory of my life would have been completely different. In some respects, I believe that my contributions to society would have different implications than they do now.

I grew up in the inner city of Milwaukee, but excelled through school. I was bussed out of my community to middle and high schools, graduating at the age of 16. I had no plans for life after high school, partly because the option to graduate had come only one month before graduation when a guidance counselor discovered that I had completed all of my required courses. It was also during a time when one could still graduate from high school and work for one company until retirement. I had not taken the ACT or SAT, nor had my family talked about or explored college admissions for me. No one in my family graduated from college although two of my older siblings “went off to college,” but soon returned home. I honestly didn’t know what going to college meant nor how valuable it would be, so I saw no reason to go there and return after a semester or two. Instead, I went to cosmetology school and also finished that early—only to discover that I didn’t like that career path in the least bit.

For a couple of years, I worked odd, part time jobs—still with no clear direction for my future. Then, I met and married a military airman and was whisked off to another country and back to two different states on three different tours of duty. Eight years after high school, a failing marriage and two children later I had a conversation with my neighbor—also a military wife—who dared me to take classes with her at the local community college.

What she said terrified me! I couldn’t go to college because I knew what that outcome would be based on my siblings’ experiences. What value was there in going? I didn’t know if I could do the work, pass the entrance exam, or otherwise succeed. And how would I pay for it given we were on a very limited family budget? This neighbor told me about grants and scholarships so I went down to the college to talk to someone.

That was a big step, but the conversation went easier than I thought.I enrolled that fall semester for a full load. Enrollment was easy. Book rental was included which made it even easier. With my very limited understanding of college life, I needed “easy” back then and someone to walk beside me. I enrolled in developmental math, which turned out to be unnecessary. With my strong math background in high school, a couple of short refresher lessons would have sufficed, but it made me feel smart again after all those years. I also added English, speech and a science course to my first semester course line-up.

I was literally shaking in my boots when I pulled up in the parking lot that first day. I knew no one other than my neighbor whose classes did not meet at the same time mine did. I was so scared I would fail. I was afraid of the unfamiliar surroundings and the fact that I didn’t know any of the jargon. I can’t remember what I did for childcare when I was in classes, but I spent many, many late nights studying at home after the children were put to bed.

Little did I know that a year later my world would turn upside down with the death of my father and immediately after that an end to my marriage. A lot of things suffered, including my grades. My mom wanted me to come home to Milwaukee, but I would have felt like a burden so I stuck it out alone—sending the children to her on occasion.

Many conversations with my academic counselor that first and second semester helped me understand things that most first-generation students like me do not know about how to persist in college even when life sprouts a lemon tree. She helped me see what degree completion looked like, and how lifetime earnings increase with each completed college degree. She helped me understand a STEM career path since I was strong in math and science, even all those years after high school. Now that I understood the value of enrolling in and completing a college degree, I made a conscious decision that I had to finish in order to make a new, sustainable life for my children and myself.

After those life events happened, I could have easily quit college. I’m still embarrassed and ashamed to admit that I was homeless for a period of time after my divorce. I could have settled into a life that did not require much from me, my gifts, or my existence. THAT would have been my death—so to say. But something came alive inside of me instead of dying. A kind word from my academic counselor. A heavy dose of grace from my professor who allowed me more time on tests or to turn in a term paper. An easy process for registration and payment. Warm, welcoming faces all across campus from individuals who communicated how important my being there was to them and ultimately for my family.

But what is important is that every time I looked back and remembered my grandmother who was a domestic and factory worker, and my mother who was a low wage earner, divorced mother (who with just a GED managed to eventually own and pay for our home), I could not give up. And when I thought of how those ladies wanted nothing but the best for me and my future, and worked hard to ensure I had it, I could not quit.

As I reflect back on my beginnings...in life and my education…I must pay tribute to the type of higher learning institution that embraced me and challenged me to continue to push forward and take the next steps necessary for a successful life. I didn’t know that life would require and offer me more than one college degree. Ironically, when I showed up at community college that first day, I didn’t know what a college degree meant or that you could obtain more than one. So it is only fitting that the universe would remind me that the encouragement, patience, understanding and example the faculty and staff at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College poured into me 30 years ago should, in turn, be paid forward toward supporting many college students who would come after me. As was done for me, I would be required to challenge their circumstances to push through to the greatness life has to offer them and them to the world around us.

About eight months after writing this unpublished article I was offered and accepted a Dean of Health Sciences position at North Central Texas College, bringing me full circle to the type of higher education institution that first poured greatness into my life. It is my commitment to give everything I have with excellence to the 2-year students I will serve in this role and others I come into contact with.

“To whom much is given, much is required.”