“That first day was pretty scary. Exiting my 1994 Geo Prizm and beginning the eternal walk between the student parking lot and the center of campus, my heart rate began to increase. What was this first day going to feel like? High school was so comfortable and honestly pretty easy. This couldn’t be that different. I wonder what the other students will think of me? I’m a commuter student, I’m living at home trying to save money, I’m not going to know them. Well, I did participate in freshman orientation, beanie and all, but will there be anyone around that remembers me? I hope I remembered to brush my teeth. Did I get the right books? What am I thinking majoring in business? Wow, that is a pretty young lady.”
The corridors of academe seemed so overwhelming, the faculty so intelligent, making me fee so inferior. The mass size of the campus, small in comparison to a large state university, seemed so intense on that first day. For many of us, looking back at our college days, we share a similar story. The worries and frets of that first day are quickly replaced by the memories of friends we made and the fears of the first semester are quickly replaced with the long-lasting images of the “wonder years” of college.
Fast forward to 2020-2021. Freshmen in college are met with fear. They have not experienced anything close to my story; on the contrary, they have experienced what to us would seem unprecedented.
“This feels weird, it’s 10:30 a.m. and I am still in my pajamas. I need to log in to my class. The schedule says it is synchronous. What is synchronous? I wonder if I going to be able to do this? I wasn’t the strongest student in high school and I didn’t even get to receive my diploma in person; they mailed it to me. I have one face-to-face class and they tell me I have to verify on some app that I have no symptoms of COVID-19 and have my temperature checked while making sure I don’t forget a mask. And that’s before I get in the building. What’s that… a voicemail. Are you kidding me? I lost my part-time job? That was going to pay for the books I need. And one of those books is $250.
“Wow, campus feels weird, there are only half the numbers in the classroom as usual and we are so far apart. The professor has on a face shield and is so far away I hope I can hear. My friend just texted me, she just saw a major conflict on her college campus about a monument on campus. She’s crying. Why am I trying this? Maybe I should just quit. I can come back next year, right?
“I’m home now, well, for a minute. Ironically, I found another job that requires me to work in a tight space next to others and of course they have me scheduled to start at the same time as my face-to-face class. I hope I don’t get COVID-19, I don’t have any insurance and my bills are piling up….”
Although my story is true reflection and their story is a rendering of narratives I have heard from students, there is one thing that I am sure of. The students today have faced challenges over the year I never fathomed they would have to face. In December 2020 national data suggested that just 24% of Texas high school seniors had filled out federal financial aid forms, a nearly 15% decline from previous year totals. The hardest hit were those students from low-income families.
We have to give a tremendous “job well done” to the college students of 2020-2021. They have, through the struggle, continued to achieve. They have surpassed so many obstacles. But we must work as a community to make sure we are helping encourage the young people around us to not give up, keep working, keep learning. Dale Carnegie once said that “most of the important things in the world have been accomplished by people who have kept on trying when there seemed to be no hope at all.” So, my words to every one of us, not just students, and me included: keep on trying, better days are ahead.
G. Brent Wallace joined North Central Texas College in fall 2011 as vice president of instruction/chief academic officer. He has served as chancellor and chief executive officer since 2014.