Notes from the President

Chris Gray, Ph.D. | Erie County Community College of Pennsylvania

My first blog post here was called “Just Start,” and I shared there my own unlikely path to the seat in which I find myself today. My premise there was simple: the best thing to do when confronted with what feels impossible is to just start. I shared in that initial entry my personal educational path and the development of a philosophy that focuses on providing supportive and equitable opportunities to all students — opportunities that offer a just start. And this week, I had the fantastic privilege and pleasure of talking to one of our EC3PA students and hearing her own story about her journey to just start. Stories like this are the reason that EC3PA is here.

Kylie Robbins is finishing her first term here at EC3PA, and she never thought that she was smart enough to go to college. A 2014 Fairview High School graduate, Kylie struggled to earn passing grades while simultaneously confronting a bipolar disorder diagnosis. She was discouraged by her experiences in high school, where she had difficulty concentrating on the material and usually felt too embarrassed to raise her hand in class. Kylie told me that she found herself surrounded by “people who got it” while she, herself, didn’t. Her classes were overwhelming, and she was placed in remedial courses that were at levels far beneath her actual abilities. She persevered, however, and celebrated her high school graduation because it meant that she “would never have to take a test again.” She was beyond done, and she headed off into the workforce, where she labored in positions that were unsatisfactory in terms of both pay and promise.

During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Kylie worked as a CNA. As the pandemic grew in size and scope, she and her fellow CNAs thought that, perhaps, this would be the moment in which the world would finally recognize the skills that these caregiving professionals — notoriously underpaid — bring to the healthcare field. Just the opposite happened; Kylie continued to work long hours in dangerous frontline caregiving roles for low pay while assuming more and more risk. She was ready for something else, but she didn’t think that she had any real options available to her until she had a conversation with her therapist.

Kylie’s therapist suggested that she look into EC3PA because it is brand new to Erie, is affordable, and offers a potential new start. Unfortunately, Kylie’s high school experiences were still fresh in her mind, and she was reluctant even to consider this suggestion. Finally, however, Kylie made the call and got an appointment to meet with one EC3PA’s advisors. And the rest, as they say, is history.

During her conversations with her therapist, Kylie learned about the difference between intelligence and education. She had previously conflated the two and believed herself to be unintelligent because of her educational struggles. EC3PA’s focus on helping students succeed was something that was novel to Kylie, who admits that she was afraid — no, terrified — to sign up. Her therapist cautioned her that it would be easier to put this off the longer she kept putting it off, so she faced her fears and took that first step.

Kylie enrolled in a class that meets on Tuesdays, her day off, and is teaching her the fundamentals of college learning. She has learned how to write a paper and how to write a bibliography, skills that will help her immensely as she pursues her ultimate career goal of becoming a social worker, and she is doing well. She dug down deep and did the thing that I encourage all students to do: Just start — take that first step, take that first class. And she did. And in so doing, she has changed her own life.

Her previous struggles with education have forged within Kylie a commitment to help those like her who have felt lost at some point in their lives. She aspires to embody the advice attributed to Robin Williams: “I think the saddest people always try their hardest to make people happy because they know what it’s like to feel absolutely worthless, and they don’t want anybody else to feel like that.” Now that she has found her footing, Kylie would love to provide counseling and help people who are lost find their way. I have every confidence that she will.

She loves the opportunity that she has here at EC3PA to complete her general education courses, continues to blossom as a college student, and then transfer to a four-year institution. Our commitment to Kylie and all our students is to help them take one step at a time and to find the pathway that leads them to whatever comes next.

Talking to this strong woman who is doing such amazing things inspired me more than I can explain. She offered to share her story here with me today in the hopes that hearing it will help and inspire others out there who feel like they cannot possibly attend college. Kylie made a decision that changed her life, and she wants people to know that they have the power to do likewise. She’s done what for her felt impossible, and she is on her way. It’s a true honor for EC3PA to be a part of her story!