The Economy of State College Students

In the past week, Student A emailed me to tell me she can no longer afford the gas money to get to class. Then student B told me that, since her mother lost her job, she has been working extra hours in order to put food on the table for herself, her mother, and her younger sister. She really wants to attend my class, but in the choice between feeding her family or going to class, food comes first.

Then I saw students A and B in class.

I am in awe of what my students do to get to class. I am humbled, really, at what they go through in order to spend 75 minutes with me.  Student C spends more than 3 hours on the bus each day just to reach my class.

There haven’t even been any foreclosures yet this semester, among my students. Just layoffs & deaths & families where they’re the only one who speaks English so they have to do all the translating. Oh, and a birth. Student D actually phoned me from the hospital to say that his wife had given birth prematurely but the hospital was just about to release them so he was going to try to make it to class on time. And then he was unreasonably grateful when I told him that he could miss class in honor of his daughter’s birth.

Many of the people I know from grad-school tend to complain about their students’ sense of entitlement — especially those friends who are now teaching at Ivy-league places. But for me, teaching in the Cal State system, I keep thinking that many of my students ought to have MORE of a sense of entitlement.

Especially when I hear from my students about what they’re not getting in other classes. Student E, a college junior, just told me he has never written an essay before my class. Student F has been unable to get into any classes in her major for the past two semesters in a row, despite all the sacrifice & expense of college, and despite responsibly registering for classes as soon as she can, always. My department is a little oasis of supporting students in a university system that doesn’t always do this.

And I keep thinking that my classes can’t possibly be good enough to merit the sacrifices students put in to get to class. I’m inspired by my students, at least today, and I just wanted to record that here, since sometimes what I seem to write about here is how my work takes me away from Sophie.

My students remind me that my work is important, even though — maybe especially because — I teach the kind of humanities whose practicality can be questioned. I teach how to read & write & think, I hope, and I will tell anyone who asks that these are important skills to learn, important skills for the kind of communication and lifelong learning required in any 21st-century white-collar job. I say that, but then sometimes I wonder whether students actually need to attend my classes in cultural history or just feed their families. I am astounded by the choices they make.

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