Managing school requirements along with child care, work responsibilities, public transportation schedules, and, too often, financial and housing insecurities is part of the norm for many Community College of Philadelphia students. So it is little wonder that handling the added burden of a pandemic was something they were able to do with aplomb, and without ever missing a beat.
During the first two weeks of the mandatory shut down, our college’s faculty and staff moved over 9,000 students into remote learning environments. This included more than just classroom instruction, extending to all of our support services, including tutoring, counseling, library services, and basic needs support. Like everyone else, our students needed to deal with the tragic effects the virus was having on their families, their communities, and — in some cases — themselves.
Rather than giving up, most of them persevered through a disrupted spring semester. In fact, many have taken the next step and signed up for summer classes — also all being offered online and via a remote format. They know what they want, whether it is a certificate, a professional development course, a two-year degree, or credits that can be transferred to another institution. They know that waiting to pursue what they want can lead to more debt and delayed earnings, and they will not be deterred — even by a pandemic.
At the city’s college, we help them keep their goals in view and within reach. They understand that the road to a college degree is normally filled with engaging experiences that are rooted in face-to-face student life. But they also know — perhaps more than others — that during times of crisis and struggle, adjustments are necessary and obstacles must be overcome. Our students see no reason to wait or postpone their goals, and neither should you.
As the pandemic has added an extra layer of uncertainty for recent high school grads and others who hoped to spend the fall furthering their learning, community colleges offer an opportunity for students of all ages and backgrounds to keep their education momentum going, even as the world feels like it’s on pause.
On May 1, we celebrated the graduation of 97 nursing students. Their achievements were accomplished despite personal tragedies and sweeping changes to their curriculum during the last six weeks of their two-year journey. Their graduation is worth noting because they will join so many frontline heroes in the battle against this insidious virus.
These incredible students have shown that community colleges continue to transform lives despite this pandemic. Their tenacity and their unwillingness to give up is a lesson for everyone. For anyone who is making a decision about their future, our students and graduates have demonstrated by their example that waiting is not the answer. The current uncertainties about college life have not deterred them from their dream of earning a college credential. In fact, they have shown that for those looking to join the economy, the only thing that can make this pandemic worse would be to wait.
The lesson to be learned from community college students is to not let a year go by without making educational progress. Preparing for the post-pandemic future should be a top priority. During this period of personal uncertainty — related to home life and finances as well as those like on-campus living arrangements and tuition costs — the best decision is the one that offers the greatest stability and certainty about the immediate future. Researchers have shown that the first year of a college career is the most important. Decisions about college should be made with the confidence that there will be no disruptions or distractions due to the virus, or anxieties stemming from the continued impact of COVID-19. Community colleges offer students that stability while mitigating their very real concerns about educational debt because we already know they have enough challenges before them. Start now.
Donald Guy Generals is the president of Community College of Philadelphia.