Schooled: What Community College Taught Me About My Education

Prior to joining their faculty last year as an adjunct, I’d had only glancing contact with Berkshire Community College (south of Williamstown, in Pittsfield), and while each interaction had been positive, my overall attitude towards a community college education remained – I confess – mildly dismissive.

My own experience of college had been, after all, dramatically different – and some part of me believed it was superior. More mortifyingly yet, that uncritical elitism in me even thought that those of us who were in that environment must be likewise superior.

I now understand how wrong I had it. Berkshire Community College (BCC) is a remarkable institution delivering substantive, meaningful education, and since opening myself up to this realization I’ve heard much the same about many other community colleges around the country. I’ve been so impressed with the faculty, support services, and students. The mood is industrious and positive, and the learning wide-ranging and deep.

This summer, in response to Covid-19-related shifts in education, passionate and talented staff at BCC’s Center for Teaching and Learning Innovation offered an extraordinary workshop devised to help faculty redesign their classes to make the most of an online or hybrid environment. My understanding is that 98% of full-time faculty as well as a large number of adjuncts took advantage of this support. I’m one of them, and I can tell you the workshop was itself a model of great online education. It was inspiring.

There’s no one profile of a community college student, just as of course there’s no such homogeneity among Williams students. But it’s fair to say that the majority are pursuing scholarship against much greater odds than I – or most of my Eph peers in the early ’80s – faced. If someone had questioned me about my privilege in those days, I probably would have expressed appropriate appreciation of my good fortune, but the recognition would not have gone very deep, despite my international background and relative diversity of experience. Besides, no one asked – or at least, not in a way I really heard.

I don’t seek credit for having finally broadened my view and deepened my perspective. It’s about time. The question is no longer muffled, and I’ve had an enormous amount of help from recent public and private dialogue. But I do think it’s worth articulating what it is I have come to recognize: just how insidiously blinding privilege can be. I was – and continue to be – incalculably fortunate, but much of that has been built on the backs of others who labor under cascades of historic inequities in just about every sphere of lived experience.

Williams and other similar institutions continue to have a place, and I continue to be deeply grateful for the opportunities afforded me by such a rarefied education. My sense, also, is that our alma mater is both more diverse and much more thoughtful around these issues than it used to be. But check out your local community college as well, and see what they’re doing. You may be impressed, and even humbled – I know I was. And maybe there will be a way you can contribute, putting our shared privilege to use in the service of more equitable access for all.

Lisken Van Pelt Dus ’84 is a teacher, poet, and martial artist, who arrived in the Berkshires when she came to Williams from England and stayed. She is a lifelong and award-winning educator, with experience teaching a range of subjects to students of all ages in both private and public institutions. Most recently she taught at Monument Mountain Regional High School in Great Barrington, Mass., for 14 years until switching to Berkshire Community College last fall. She also continues to teach classical Okinawan karate, a discipline she began at Williams, these days at Elm Street Martial Arts in Pittsfield, Mass., in partnership with her husband. Her poetry has likewise earned awards and can be found in many print and online journals as well as in her two books, Everywhere at Once (Pudding House, 2009) and What We’re Made Of (Cherry Grove, 2016). Parts of this post first appeared in a Letter to the Editor in The Berkshire Eagle on July 30, 2020. Lisken can be reached at [email protected].