87: What I Learned at Community College

87: What I Learned at Community College

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Teens Talk Getting In...To College

What I Learned at Community College

In this day and age, some turn 18 and think they’re a man or a woman and that’s it, but that’s just not true. You have to establish your manhood or your womanhood with actions.

~Orlando McGuire

My college career began with a flood of tears. Nothing in the world could make me want to stay at home and commute to NOVA—the community college nearby which had the street reputation of being “where the ‘N’ stands for knowledge.” In other words, no self-respecting, 4.0 student like me would ever go to community college. I was quite sure that I was a genius, and not only that, but that the world owed me something for being a genius. So when the world did not give me what I was so sure I deserved — namely, a scholarship so I could afford to move out and go to a “real college” — I cried. Life wasn’t fair. And that was Lesson Number One.

I worked full time through a tear-filled summer, reluctantly accepting my fate, which of course, was worse than anyone else’s. Looking back, I laugh at what I now see as just plain egocentrism. I never once thought about how blessed I was to live in a country in which going to college was possible; the focus was on the fact that things had not worked out the way I had planned. Besides, how was I going to get along at a school where I was the smartest person?

And then came the first day of Calculus class. I knew that this would be challenging, even at NOVA, but of course I would succeed — there was no doubt in my mind that I would do well. That was how it always was before; sure, math was hard, but as long as I did my homework, I always got an A. So when the professor spent the first day explaining just how difficult this class was, and how everyone needed to have a very clear picture of what they were getting into, I just smiled. And when the following week, I noticed that half the class had dropped Calculus, I just smiled again.

That was the most difficult class I have ever taken. I did everything a student could possibly do: I went to class faithfully, I did my homework religiously, I asked questions daily, and I even went to see the professor for help — something that impressed even my professor, a man who was not easy to impress. I spent late nights studying, something I had never had to do before. Because of the lack of sleep, I caught more colds in that first semester than most people catch in a year. Still, my first semester ended the way it had begun—when I saw that all my work had gotten me only a C, the floodgates opened again and I cried the whole day, blaming it on the teacher rather than my own shortcomings. But I soon realized that the balloon of my inflated ego had been filled with only hot air—I was no genius.

But if I was not a genius, then my self-worth had to come from somewhere. Maybe that is why I signed up for a weight training class in the spring. And while I might have had somewhat distorted goals in mind, that decision was one of the best I had made up to that point. Taking this class was a bit of a risk for me. In high school, any time I wanted to join a club or try out for a team, I always had to have a friend try it with me. If none of my friends wanted to, then I just would not do it. Being at community college and not really having met any friends, forced me to do what I wanted to do, and not worry what other people thought. But this class not only taught me confidence, it also taught me lessons about fitness I will remember throughout life. I became a healthier person physically, committed to an exercise program that, had I not gone to community college, I never would have attempted. Besides, I had my own personal trainer: now I was motivated and able to go to the gym with my dad. After that spring, and all those weekends I was able to spend at the gym with my dad, I was no longer envious of my friends who had gone away to school.

And maybe that is when my real growth began. Living at home afforded me extra time, and I responded in earnest to that “youthful idealism,” which I think really is the impulse that comes when you finally start to outgrow the selfishness of childhood—in other words, when you finally start to grow as a person. I taught religious education at a local church, and learned just how difficult teaching really is. I suppose that I always knew that teaching was not easy—but it is true that until you experience something, you do not really understand. I also volunteered for an organization that helped pregnant women. I came into contact with people who were truly in need—a population whose existence I had largely ignored. In both of those jobs, there was a period of disillusionment, in which I came to realize that the work I did was not exactly saving the world. Yet, what followed was a realistic view of the small amount of work that I put in. Mother Teresa said that God doesn’t ask for success, just faithfulness. An hour a week was not going to save the world; I realized that. I also realized that an hour a week which I dedicated to other people—well, it just might save me.

Having just finished my time at community college, things are looking up. I was just accepted to the University of Virginia in the fall, studying a major I am truly excited about—English. Good things can happen to those who go to community college. My story is proof of that, but most of all, my story is for every high school senior who wonders if his or her self-worth comes from the answer to the question: “What college do you go to?”

~Barbara Jane Wheeler

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