by Emily Pakes
For most of my college experience, my involvement has been minimal. I went to class, did my work and went home. Then, at the insistence of a friend, I attended my first Student Senate meeting a month ago. She encouraged everyone she knew to come in order to show support for the Second Chance Prom for which she was seeking funding. For most of the meeting, I sat along the wall, politely listening to funding requests from various clubs, and trying not to giggle at those who violated Roberts Rules of Order. But when a school adviser brought up the Mobilize.org Target 2020 Summit, I found myself drawn into a cause higher than dancing shoes and punch. This was my chance to actually make a difference for myself and my peers.
Mrs. Gould explained that a Washington, DC, non-profit organization will would be hosting host a summit on education reform in Charlotte next month, in which students would discuss barriers to college completion among community college students. After having undergone three unsuccessful meetings with the administration in protest of my having to retake a class I passed with an A, boy did I have something to say about this subject! And apparently, so did a lot of my fellow students. By the end of the week there were fifteen Durham Tech students registered to attend the summit.
During Target 2020, we split into groups and identified what we believed to be the biggest obstacles for students like us. Transportation, childcare, support and internships turned out to be the “big four.” In writing my grievances for the application process, I consulted Dr. Michelle Gladman, sociology professor at Durham Tech, who advised me that the transferring of credits issue would take a lot more than one summit to change. So in the spirit of working together, I collaborated with Student Senate Treasurer Phil Markovich on the Internship team, which we formed to address the issue of bridging the gap between school and work.
During the next week, we met with our Career Counselor (the only one at DTCC), the president of the college, and several members of the Durham Chamber of Commerce. We asked what was being done to make graduation an significant incentive for students. Are there clear-cut internship pathways for students in ALL degree programs? Can students see the light at the end of the tunnel, so to speak, from enrollment to the job market? Phil and I expressed students’ feelings of disillusionment; that between administrative hassles, mounting lists of graduation requirements, the pressures of balancing our jobs, families and innumerable personal issues with the pressures of school, is it really worth it in the end? When students can’t see others arriving at their desired destination from the same starting point of enrollment, they often lose faith in the process. This lengthy process of “bettering” oneself leaves one no better if they don’t have a stable, secure, better-paying job at the end of it.
Phil and I worked our tails off before, between, and after classes on the cusp of midterms, devoting every spare minute to our cause. I didn’t anticipate the personal effect that this process would have on me. Identifying barriers, gathering ideas and formulating solutions for this summit triggered an emotional response in me. Like so many others, I’ve experienced firsthand the enormous obstacles community college students face just to attend school.
At this time last year, I was homeless. Mounting debt resulting from a bad marriage led me to live in my van outside of my workplace in Alexandria, Virginia. I was working full-time, going to school, but I just couldn’t afford rent. Aside from the constant fear and the bitter cold, it was tremendously stressful. I wasn’t lazy, insane, or on drugs; I was simply a student doing the best I could to survive. But of course, people still stigmatized me as all of those things. I would huddle next to my Sterno pot with a school book late at night. I cried frequently, but I kept on going.
A year later, I moved to North Carolina, filed for bankruptcy, secured a bartending job and moved into my own place. I enrolled at Durham Tech (with three classes left!) and blossomed with the support of teachers and fellow students. I am so close to completion. I desperately want to go on for my Bachelor’s, but more than that, I want to know that I’ll have a job.
When the weekend of the summit was finally upon us, I packed my concerns, experience and research with me. A crammed but light-hearted bus ride there belied the fury of intense days ahead of us. Each day of the summit was packed with motivational speeches, networking activities, and most importantly, the opportunity to be heard. In the course of those busy days, I met a hundred other dedicated students, representatives of international philanthropy organizations, the amazing Mobilize.org staff, and even Alberto Retana, Director of Community Outreach from the U.S. Department of Education.
And yes, I told him exactly what I’ve been telling administrators at my school: “We need a national articulation agreement. No student should have to retake a class that they’ve passed at another accredited school!” I couldn’t believe it. He actually showed quite a bit of concern as he sat next to me and took notes on what I was said, assuring me he would address it with his boss in Washington, DC.
By the end of the summit, I was both exhausted and exhilarated. It felt like a revival in the church of common sense and justice for all. But that’s what Democracy 2.0 and Mobilize.org’s summits are all about.
As the end of Sunday neared, I felt compelled to share my commitment to action along with my personal story. Overwhelmed by emotion, I couldn’t hold back the tears. I sat back down embarrassed at having cried in a room full of professionals, but then something amazing happened—other people stood up and did the same thing! There were at least two other people who had been homeless recently, others who battled cancer, some who overcame drug addictions, many raising several kids on their own and a few returning home as combat veterans. There we were together, with similar struggles, through having come from diverse backgrounds.
I learned at Target 2020 North Carolina that there are millions of people like me. All we need is a clear-cut opportunity, a bit of transportation and someone to watch our child for an hour while we’re in class, an internship, a job placement/local business hybrid model, and above all more support in our school and more of us WILL succeed. We community college students have cleaned toilets for $2.13 an hour with a smile on our face while living in our car during winter. You’ll never see a more hardworking, grateful workforce than us. We just need that chance.
Thank you for this one.