Notes from the President

Christopher Gray, Ph.D. | Founding President, Erie County Community College

As I sit down to pen this blog post, we’ve just been greeted by the unhappy news that Punxsutawney Phil has seen his shadow; as a result, we have six more weeks of winter ahead of us.  This year also marks thirty years since the movie Groundhog Day was released, and we first saw Bill Murray work through thousands of iterations of the same day in an effort to improve himself sufficiently to move forward.  Largely due to that movie, Groundhog Day has become synonymous with a sort of stuck repetition — and not in a good way. 

Thinking about that movie prompted me to reflect on a recent encounter that I had with a student.  I’m going to anonymize the details to protect this student’s identity, but hers is a powerful story that, I think, needs to be shared.  Sarah came to EC3 after her life fell spectacularly to pieces.  She was battling severe depression after the untimely death of both of her parents followed by the loss of her job.  About six months ago, Sarah lost her home and had been couch surfing as she tried to figure out what to do next.  Every day felt the same to Sarah, and she felt trapped and hopeless.  She bluntly told me that she didn’t see the point in continuing; she was considering serious self-harm when her friend advised her to try EC3. 

“College?  For me?” thought Sarah.  “Seriously?!?”

None of Sarah’s family members had attended college, and she had always been told that she was not “college material.”  She struggled in school, barely graduated, and headed straight out into the workforce.  She worked grueling jobs and eked out a living until her previous employer closed its doors.  Heading back to school now, when her life was in pieces, felt almost laughable to Sarah.  Still, for some reason, she decided to meet with one of our advisors just to see.

“I honestly just decided to take a class as my last resort,” she said.  “I figured that, when it was a disaster, it would just be more evidence that I don’t belong here.  My failure as a human would be complete.  I was ready to disappoint myself.”

Sarah came to us broken, despondent, and sure that there was nothing left for her in this life.  She was so beaten down that she couldn’t imagine any scenario other than failure.  And yet, she flipped the script.  Sarah didn’t fail her class; in fact, she performed well.  She has enrolled again this semester — in two classes, this time.  She’s found a more stable housing arrangement, and she has a reliable part-time job that is helping her get back on her feet.  Sarah’s struggles are far from over, but she feels a bit of hope for the future.  Slowly but surely, she’s making progress.  Despite still having dark days, she has hope for her future, and that makes all the difference. 

It’s easy to become jaded and cynical as we see story after story of the world’s cruelty, and it’s easier still to become desensitized to the struggles of those who walk among us.  Part of our challenge here at EC3 is to reach out, find the Sarahs, and invite them to consider that which they had never before contemplated.  If not for Sarah’s bravery in making that appointment, we cannot know what may have happened to her.  But we at EC3 are better for having Sarah here with us.  She came to us when she felt she had nothing else left and nothing to live for, and we are so honored to be able to help her on her journey to a different life. Sarah’s story could have ended tragically, and instead, it’s just beginning.

In just a few days, we will begin our fourth semester of classes.  After more than two decades in higher education, I find that it’s easy to slip into the comfortable familiarity of the rhythms of the academic calendar.  Colleges are creatures of routine, after all, and we tend to do things the same way.  It’s easy to fall into a sort of complacency, therefore, and to forget that this is all new and a life-changing chance for many of our students.  If you ask Sarah, she will tell you, simply, that college changed her life.  “It gave me a purpose,” she says. 

Our duty is to try to put ourselves into the shoes of our students each new semester as they walk through our doors. The Sarahs of the world are depending on us to do so.