Written by: Katie Greene
I am a firm supporter of the mission of community colleges. Having received my Associate’s Degree from a community college in MA, I had the great fortune of engaging with students from all walks of life who were choosing to work toward their educational goals. It is my sincere belief that in a time in which the “American Dream” is becoming harder to experience for those living in this country, the community college system, with its open door policy and in allowing people to re-invent themselves academically and professionally, is the gateway to any last glimmer of such a “dream.”
Today, I spent the afternoon at a local community college in order to assist with mock interviews as part of the college’s Prep Day. Below, I’ve described my experience working with three very different students, which I hope will illuminate the ways in which their experience at the community college is serving as a catalyst to their “American Dream.” I’ve used pseudonyms to ensure anonymity.
My first student, Johnathan, looks to be a “tough dude” with a large neck tattoo as well as others on both arms. However, his glowing eyes and bright smile, in which one of his front teeth is missing, immediately direct my focus to his energy and enthusiasm. When asked about his career goals, Johnathan is quick to state this his dream is to become a senator of NC, and that he plans to continue in schooling from having received his GED through to someday receiving his Master’s Degree in order to be able to work effectively in politics. Johnathan became most animated when discussing his contribution as the former president of the male leadership and support organization on campus. He discussed having been recognized with an award for the community service he provided in gathering food from local area markets and food banks in the city, to bring to the food pantry on campus.
Johnathan expressed great pride in his desire to encourage other men on campus, mentioning that a student who was having difficulty getting to campus was overwhelmed and requested that Johnathan pray with him. However, in recounting this story, Johnathan was quick to add that although he believes in prayer, he doesn’t believe that it fixes everything. So, he walked over to the police station to help this student purchase a bus pass so he could more easily get to campus. At this point, I replied: “Perhaps what you’re trying to convey is that you believe that we’re all vessels in doing the work toward social change.” Johnathan smiled and nodded, taking his pen to write down the words: “social change.”
At the end of the meeting, I took a moment to laugh with Johnathan, stating that he surely has a future in politics, as he was able to avoid answering my questions by offering stories akin to Aesop’s Fables. After we had a good laugh, I suggested the S.T.A.R method for him to practice, namely: Situation, Task, Action, Result, and in providing a few examples based on his responses, he seemed to appreciate the efficient and succinct nature of this tool. I also suggested that he focus on his passion for leadership in addressing his strengths, as it was clear that this was a genuine area of interest to him, and so this focus should assist him in moving away from philosophical stories and more effectively engage with contextualizing his actual experiences and skills.
Laura arrived for her appointment and introduced herself in a very quiet voice, which continued throughout the remainder of the mock interview. Contrary to Johnathan, Laura’s answers were very concise and her answers well-suited for an interview. However, her answers were actually too brief, only indicating a skill or a task, without contextualizing with specific examples. Additionally, it was only after I told her the question-answer portion of the mock interview was complete and that she had done a good job, that her whole body relaxed and I saw her smile for the first time.
Laura would like to be a health/wellness coach, completing her Associate’s Degree and either getting specific certification for this career, or attending a local 4-year institution to receive her Bachelor’s Degree in physical education. When I asked her in what ways this community college was a good fit for her, she explained that she recently had a baby and so this school was the most appropriate option for her. I encouraged Laura to consider what classes have informed her interest in wellness coaching, and to be ready to address those connections in an interview. I also encouraged her to rely on her life experience to foster situational examples to share in an interview. For example, by the time I asked her how she deals with pressure, she had already mentioned the fact that she’s a mom and she enjoys meditating. So, in addressing the question about pressure, I suggested she look to the challenges of being a new mom and her coping mechanism of meditation to lead her in a direction to answer the question. At the end of the session Laura looked like a whole new person, relieved and confident.
Matthew provided me with a great opportunity to learn. He is originally from the Congo and is cognizant of his effort to improve his communication skills. He had been offered a financial and athletic scholarship to a private college, but unfortunately, the scholarship did not cover enough of the cost, and so his father suggested he attend this community college and try transferring to a 4-year institution after completing his Associate’s Degree.
In addition to the language barrier, it was clear that Matthew did not understand the process of how to answer questions in an interview. Due to his visa status, Matthew is unable to work at this time, and therefore, his work experience is minimal to none. However, Matthew was encouraged to learn that career development is about building skills which are not solely based on a job title, and therefore, he should consider ways to engage on campus or in extracurricular activities to increase his skill-set to reference in future interviews. We then repeated the mock interview questions, allowing him to practice responding based on his own skills and referencing his life experiences. We also discussed how he can address his communication challenges, by focusing on how this challenge has informed his dedication and perseverance to reach his goals, which he is well on his way to doing. Matthew hopes to become a manager of a large company like Walmart of Food Lion.
Indeed, these students are in the process of working toward their definition of the “American Dream.” I wish them all the very best, and thank them for reminding me of why I work in higher education and believe in the journey toward self-actualization.