By Emanuele Calianno, Editor-at-Large
Like many of life’s social functions in the midst of this pandemic, BCC’s graduation ceremony for 2020 will be held virtually, an unprecedented event in the college’s history. While this will mean a number of modifications to the traditional format of the ceremony, one thing that will remain constant is the qualifications for the valedictorian to be picked. You know the type: 4.0 GPA, PTK member, hyper-involved in extracurriculars, likely to go on to an Ivy League with a prestigious scholarship.
While such a student may be the perfect poster child to promote BCC, I feel that their experience is in a way singular, one that will not necessarily reflect that of the community college student at large. As a uniquely qualified member of a rather different faction of the student base, I felt that I needed to address this issue of underrepresentation.
This is a different type of valedictory, one for a particular kind of student living among us.
A speech for those of us who, in an inherently transient place, slowly begin to set their roots and feel like part of the furniture. Students who, for one reason or another, turn their associate’s degree into an extended adventure, watching as others pass them by. Students like me, who are almost a decade into a program designed to be completed in two.
I started classes at BCC in the spring of 2012. I was 18 years old, had just dropped out of high school. I hated being here. I felt it was a place unbefitting of my potential, a last-ditch alternative I was itching to get away from as soon as possible. As I soon found out, my hubris and I were just getting settled.
Eight years later and I am still here, my 27th birthday around the corner, with one more class to take before graduating. During this time, my GPA zig-zagged from a 0.22 to a 3.7, I changed my major multiple times, and made a short-lived escapade to live and study in Tokyo (that’s a story for another day).
The reasons for such an extended stay are many. In the beginning, I almost flunked out of college, as I had done in high school. I was struggling with personal issues and a learning disability, causing me to retake two semesters. Then came the part-time studying and the frequent breaks due to work, finances and life’s assorted curveballs. Before I knew it, I had become the dreaded community college holdout.
I have watched many go past me, some going as far as grad school. I have felt the loneliness of no longer knowing any of my classmates anymore… multiple times. One of my professors, who has taught for over three decades, has taken to introducing me to people by saying “Emanuele has been here longer than I have.”
And yet, I know that I am not alone. Among the perennially fresh faces, there are other holdouts like me. On average, roughly 23% of BCC’s students are here after their seventh semester, and around 5.5% make it past their 12th. We are the scourge of higher education administrators and politicians alike; but more importantly, we are the standard bearers of the community college experience.
To be a community college student is to be different. If we are here, it is because we could not fit the mold of the traditional educational path, or refused to do so. We are the GED recipients, the immigrants, the working parents and the financially challenged. Sometimes, we are all of those things combined, and more. And yet, we still inch towards the goal of bettering ourselves and our future, looking at our associates like Ulysses sailing towards Ithaca. We come to school at night and during the weekends; we bring our kids to class; we deal with medical problems and mental illness. Who, then, is better suited to represent BCC if not those among us who face the most struggles in getting through their studies, becoming statistical outliers even in the context of a two-year college?
Being part of this strangely exclusive club has been a most singular experience for me. It has given my hubris a gut punch I am happy to say has never fully recovered from. More importantly, it has given me a deep appreciation for the institution that makes it all possible, the place I once disdained. In an age where the illusion of the American Dream has largely fallen down, two-year schools continue a fight to champion opportunity and social mobility for those who need it most. Of all the things I have felt trudging through this degree, this school has never once made me feel hopeless – at least not for long.
I would not trade my time at BCC for anything. The experiences I have had here, the people I met and the community I came into contact with, are completely unique to this kind of institution, and have profoundly shaped my world-view. Being here for so long has only served to deepen this feeling. It is something I am fiercely proud of, an academic experience I rank as equal as any I could have had in life.
A traditional valedictory will usually include an encouraging, ambitious look to the future. But this is a different kind of speech, for those of us whose future is constantly getting rewritten. I don’t know how many among us perennial students will graduate this semester, and how many will instead be back in the fall to continue in their quest. I don’t know how the post-pandemic world will reshape our paths, what obstacles and triumphs may come our way.
But I know that no matter how much I accomplish in my life, I will always tell people that I started out from here; I will always say that I was a community college kid.