People use the word frequently, with little meaning. They talk about wanting to inspire others, but have little understanding about how to do it. Politicians say they inspire, convincing themselves they can effect change. Inspiration is a well-worn theme in commencement speeches, a cliché. And yet, for the first time in my professional life, I am truly inspired.
The vast majority of my students come to class anxious to overcome ill-equipped backgrounds and to forge ahead with a remarkable, unbridled determination. Most of my students balance multiple jobs, schoolwork, class attendance, parenting and other responsibilities. Some struggle to stay awake in class after working all night. One student came to class on a Wednesday after giving birth three days earlier.
Many of my students are immigrants, studying for careers that will provide for themselves and their families. Some are determined to have careers that were otherwise not available to them in their native lands. Some are the first in their families to pursue a college education. One 80-year-old student was determined to learn, regardless of her age or limitation.
It is inspiring when a student stops me in the hallway to excitedly describe her newfound appreciation for math. It is inspiring when a student stunningly understands a concept he struggled to understand for years. It is inspiring when a student spends three hours to get to class in a blizzard to avoid falling behind.
"Nobody will give me anything," one student told me last semester, "I have to get it for myself."
While going through a divorce and working a low-level job at a hospital, a student from Honduras tearfully told me he was feeling "stuck in life." He couldn't make ends meet and needed to pass my class to earn an associate degree to raise his job status. The hospital grants him only two weeks' vacation a year. He chose to spend them in my accelerated two-week summer course. I feared that, with his limited math background, he would be overly challenged and might not succeed.
Another student, a single mother, struggled daily to balance full-time parenting, a full-time job and the demands of school. She did her homework on the bus and her studying late into the night. Her need to succeed was imperative. College, she told me, was her lifeline. We made a pact that failure was not an option.
These students, these bright young minds are my notion of the "teacher's high."
I see students who demonstrate a passionate commitment for self-sufficiency. The gratitude, the warm reactions, and the connection to faculty are all very real at Kingsborough. I wish I could bottle that tenacity and determination and spread it to other young minds in high schools and colleges.
I think about my years of education in my privileged Ivy League background and my years working with high-powered Wall Street brokers. I don't recall any of my Ivy League peers working several jobs while trying to maintain balance and sanity. I don't recall any of my peers wondering how they might afford the tuition for the following semester. I don't recall any of my peers feeling the scarcity and deprivation that leads to sheer ambition.
The community college students I teach should be held up as true examples of the American Dream. After all, I tell them the only thing that stands between them and success is a #2 pencil.
The vast majority of community college students go on to pursue four-year college degrees and to enter chosen fields of occupation. The community college education propels the student into the next chapter. It provides inspiration and hope for the future.
My students "inspire" me. I cannot wait for Mondays to begin with them. Here in my classroom, I tell my students they are in the right place. "Graduate with an associate degree from community college," I say, "and you can fly."
Michelle Goldstein, a member of the Professional Staff Congress at the City University of New York, is an adjunct lecturer at Kingsborough Community College and College of Staten Island. She graduated from the Wharton School of Business and the University of Pennsylvania.