At Dundalk CC, celebrating the dreams deferred

June 19, 1994|By MICHAEL OLESKER

You should have seen the faces at Dundalk Community College: faces blossoming in the wilting summer heat, faces breaking into smiles so wide they threatened to open up branch smiles.

You should have been there on Commencement Day. You should have seen the looks when people who always felt cut off from the world of colleges suddenly found themselves marching across a stage, tentatively, disbelievingly, with their families looking on and authority figures standing there with diplomas to hand them after all these years.

They wore looks that said:

This is really happening to me?

They wore looks that said:

This isn't some grand joke being played on me by people who are real college types and want to have a laugh at my expense?

They wore looks that said:

I've crossed over.

The face of education is changing, and the appearance is profound in the places like Dundalk Community College. The majority of the students aren't those who simply graduate from high school and head straight into the two-year program.

Today, the average age of graduates is 33. Some are in their 50s, and a few in their 60s. It takes, generally, five or six years for most students to complete the two-year course of study. Most are working full time while going to class, and haven't been in a classroom for years when they enter the school.

"People are getting the message: You have to get an education," Martha Smith was saying. She's the departing president at Dundalk who's taking the presidency at Anne Arundel Community College.

"If you didn't get the message in high school," she said, "you have to get it now, because employers and peers are telling you. Education is the way out."

At commencement ceremonies the other night, you could hear the message reflected in an emotional speech by a graduate named Ann Boyer.

"I was a high school dropout at 16," said Boyer, 34 and a single mother. She was graduating with a 3.8 average, and completed her credits in four years.

"Pretty good," Martha Smith noted afterward. "She's on the fast track."

"It was 15 years since I'd been in school," Boyer told the gathering in the sweltering gymnasium, "but I wanted to pursue dreams that had died. There were many times I thought I wouldn't make it. Sometimes I questioned my sanity. My kid had to eat a lot of TV dinners."

Then she looked across the rows of fellow graduates, about 250 of them, and said, "I stand in awe of you. You made it through jobs, layoffs, families, deaths. . . ."

Dundalk Community College is an important barometer. It draws heavily from an East Baltimore that historically had little use for higher education. Generations of families produced men who went to work at Sparrows Point and women who stayed home and nurtured families.

For many, college was never a consideration; it was something that happened to other people, people with pretensions. In such an atmosphere, high school itself was sometimes considered unnecessary. Who needed schooling when the steel mills would provide?

But the jobs at steel mills, once handed from one generation to the next like family heirlooms, no longer provide. The world has become a more complex place; modern jobs require modern academic skills.

"I remember the first time I walked in here," Martha Smith was recalling the other day, as she packed her bags for her move to Anne Arundel County. "There was a group of students in a room: a senior citizen, someone in a wheelchair, a young man who was clearly socially underprivileged, who didn't have many social skills, or speaking skills, a middle-aged woman with a child on her elbow, and a couple of 'traditional' students. They were the Student Government Association. And I was struck: Probably every one of them never thought they'd be sitting on a college campus, much less the SGA. For a lot of people, community college is their first, second and last chance.

"So many of them, they're used to failure. They didn't quite make it in high school, or they didn't quite have the opportunity to go to college, or they had so many other challenges in their lives that it never seemed possible. Now it is."

Smith saw the looks in their eyes when she handed out diplomas the other day: the ones who still couldn't believe this was happening to them, the ones taking hesitant steps across a stage that seemed wide as a cultural divide, the ones who seemed to be asking themselves, "This is really happening to me?"

And then found themselves walking offstage with a diploma in their hands.

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