Midpoint of the winter quarter has arrived, bringing with it midterm exams and essays in all three of my classes. It’s a lot of work, to be sure, spilling over into the weekend. But for every mangled sentence I read, there is a beautifully crafted paragraph or a surprising insight that gives me pause, making me appreciate why I love teaching at Portland State University.
It’s not just the diversity of the student body. I’ve grown accustomed to looking out at a sea of black and brown and white faces, knowing many of my international and immigrant students have grown up in the Middle East, Asia, Africa, Europe or Latin America, while others hail from cities, suburbs and rural communities across the United States.
No, it’s more than that. It’s reading their stories and understanding what they have overcome to get here — and often what they continue to deal with in pursuit of their degree – that makes me feel privileged to have a hand in their education.
Many are the first in their family to attend a four-year college. Many attended high schools with less than stellar academic reputations. Many have transferred in from a community college. Some struggled at their first try (a euphemism for dropping out) and now have come back after a few years.
Many are parents – and, yes, there have been instances when a student (it’s always a mom) has brought her young child to class because no one else could take care of them. Some are going through divorce; some are helping take care of an ailing parent; and some (actually many) have learning disabilities requiring alternative learning accommodations.
And rising above all of this? A growing number of students who deal with anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues.
I can’t say I anticipated much of this when I left journalism four years ago to begin a second career as an adjunct instructor teaching a single class at each of two public universities in the Portland area. Yet here I am, with a full teaching load on a one-year contract at PSU that ends in June, and I feel like I’ve been blessed with an opportunity to help students get a foothold in life – or simply just persevere.
It dawned on me the other day that while the acronym “USC” is most commonly associated with the prestigious University of Southern California (the expensive, private school often derided as the University of Spoiled Children), I’m teaching at a University of Second Chances. A place where students of all backgrounds come together with a common goal of improving their life through higher education.
Like every one of my colleagues, I do the best I can to offer a challenging course that introduces new concepts, provokes thought, and sparks engagement through wide-ranging class discussions. But, honestly, it is in the hours outside of the classroom where one can make a difference.
Often, this means meeting with a student who’s overwhelmed at home and at school and needs some help putting together an acceptable essay. Other times, it means a long conversation with someone in their mid- to late 20s – the so-called non-traditional student – who is having doubts about their declared major or uncertain career path.
I don’t mean to suggest that every day is marked by some kind of crisis.
In recent weeks, I’ve had the pleasure of doing interviews with really smart, accomplished students who’ve applied to be in my next study-abroad class in July. I’ve written letters of recommendation for former students seeking their first jobs as new graduates. I’ve also been asked to help read through a small stack of applications for a departmental scholarship, knowing we can choose only one candidate among so many deserving candidates.
In the face of so many challenges, what stands out to me are the hopes and dreams, and small victories, of students like these:
R.B.: A just-graduated senior who came to me to ask for a letter of recommendation to graduate school. Raised in poverty, abused by her stepfather, and hampered by a learning disability that wasn’t diagnosed until her teenage years, she barely graduated high school. At PSU, she gained her footing, built her self-confidence and now aspires to work in the nonprofit sector.
Z.G.: A sophomore who was born in Pakistan, grew up in Afghanistan and speaks five languages, only learning English after she came to the U.S. as a teenager. After a year at PSU, her GPA was below 2.0 and she was placed on academic probation. I wrote a letter of support that pointed out she had earned a C in every one of her classes during the fall and was now positioned to improve
I.P.: A senior who participated in my London study-abroad program, he’s taken all four of my classes. He floundered at community college, but found his focus at PSU. Now in his early 30s, he’s just completed an internship at Oregon Health & Science University and asked me for a letter of recommendation to graduate school.
L.D.: Another community college transfer who’s bounced from California to Oregon with a middling GPA. She’s in her mid-20s, a junior majoring in sociology, and in the midst of a remarkable turnaround at PSU. She earned a perfect score on her first essay in a class she’s taking from me now and will be among the students going abroad with me to Germany this summer.
Just over a third of U.S. adults have a four-year college degree. In times past, we would celebrate anyone who had attained their bachelor’s. These days among a considerable number of our fellow Americans, a college degree is viewed with resentment, as a token of the elite. Nothing could be more discouraging – or pathetic, frankly – than a view like that.
In my book, these students at PSU are heroes. I look at them and I see tired faces and slumped shoulders from the responsibilities they carry and the expectations they have for themselves. But as graduation nears, I hope those frowns will turn to smiles as they close in on their degree, celebrate their accomplishments, and embark on their post-graduation path, wherever it may lead them.