My Big Fat Community College
Updated: Jun 16
My Big Fat Community College: A love letter to my community and its college
This post is from Candice Mayhill (née Hill), an associate professor of English at AACC. Read her powerful blog post on community, college and redefining below. Candice was recently featured on our Redefine U podcast. Hear her give a reading of her post and then discuss with host Dan Baum what inspired her, what she learned and how she redefined herself. You can find the original post on the publishing platform, Medium.
Let’s face it. The real love story of My Big Fat Greek Wedding isn’t that between Toula and her handsome history teacher; it’s between Toula and her community college. Feeling fed up with her life and desiring change, where does our heroine turn first? The community college. Before she sees the handsome guy, before she changes her hair, before she does what countless romantic comedies do to their female leads and gets a makeover, she finds a brochure for her local college: “Add to your life,” the bold type says as her sister swings the brochure towards the garbage can of the family restaurant.
There we are. Add to your life. “Redefine yourself,” as my community college says.
She sits outside of the family restaurant, trapped in a windy alley thinking, “I wish I had a different life. I wish I were braver.”
It’s time, people. It’s time to be brave. We’re in Toula’s windy alley.
If you’re anything like me, part of your quarantine time is taken up by binge watching every new show you can find, quickly followed by watching every movie you ever loved on repeat. Rewatching My Big Fat Greek Wedding, I fell in love with the narrative.
Toula tells her father she wants to head to college to take computer classes. No, she doesn’t. She wants to head to college for a change. She wants to be the person she has always wanted to be. She wants to explore without leaving home. Toula gets community; she is part of one and wants to be part of one, but she wants to be more.
The community college is there for that.
This is a love letter to the community college. Admittedly, I’m biased. I’m a tenured associate professor who loves her job and her students. I’ve been teaching at the community college, first as an adjunct professor, then as a full-time professor, for thirteen years. I teach English. I love good and bad books and good and bad students. I don’t think “bad” actually exists for either. I think every book deserves to be read and every student deserves access to an education.
I think I’m lucky to be where I am right now.
At this particular moment, when we’re under a stay at home order because of the threat of coronavirus, I am proud to be where I am, conducting my classes from home, meeting my students online, on the phone, over email, and, in some cases, through the blessing of the USPS. This is where we are. Home.
Home is the community college.
When students at my community college were forced off campus for courses, my colleagues stepped up. When students were forced out of work, my colleagues stepped up. When we thought that students might be stressed out by a traditional grading scale and needed other options, we stepped up. When my college thought faculty needed adequate time to prepare courses and train for online teaching, my college stepped up; we closed for three weeks to give faculty time for the pivot. When my college worried about students not having access to food, rent money, counselling, substance abuse help, domestic help, technology, books, internet access, or just someone to talk to, my college stepped up. When my college saw a shortage of PPE, they donated every blessed extra resource we had to the local hospital. While I watched professors at other colleges scramble to figure out Zoom and Teams and Skype and Big Blue Button, I watched my college roll out training and communication and support.
There we are: support.
Let’s talk about how the community college is supporting you right now.
My students are your essential workers. Some of them have graduated from the college and pursued careers in government and health care. They are making their way to work every damned day that I’m able to sit home talking about good writing with my students. They’re taking care of the sick; they’re letting the country run while I am able to stay safe at home. My current students are your essential workers in education. They’ve graduated from the community college pursuing degrees in education and have come back to the classroom to give back or they are teachers in the current system who return to us to keep their credentials up to date. They’re running their classrooms at home while taking care of their own kids and taking our classes because they love to learn. My students are your essential workers bringing you your curbside pick-up from the grocery store, the pharmacy, your favorite restaurant, your liquor store; they are your gig workers bringing you your orders so that you can stay home. My students are your current and former service members working on their degrees when they can.
My students are also out of work, in some cases. Some of them looking at transfer in the Fall are left disappointed, not knowing if they should move in the Fall. Some of them are high school students getting a jump on their college careers by taking a few classes with us. Some of them are parents working through their education while taking care of kids. Some of them are here because they weren’t quite sure where to go yet. Some of them are here because it makes sense to do your first two years of general education closer to home. Some of them are here because they love books and wanted to read more. All of them are here because they made a choice.
Whoever they are, they are stepping up to that choice.
The community college is your support. The students are there for you, doing the work that needs to be done, in the classroom, in virtual spaces, in your community, in your government, in your businesses.
I spend most of my days lately on the computer, working with my students and colleagues how I can. When I need to get out, I go to campus. I walk. I look at the flowers and stare, maybe a little forlornly, at the signs indicating that all buildings are closed to access. We’re going to be online until at least July 7; our administrators tell us it might also be distance education for us in the fall semester. My plans for my students aren’t on hold: we still have authors to encounter, papers to write, research to be done, conversations to be had. My colleagues still have formulas to solve, history to explore, laws to commit to memory, concepts to understand, entire galaxies to name and number. Our plans are not on hold. We’re proposing new courses to meet current demands, revising old ones to meet new formats. We’re never on hold.
Your plans aren’t on hold either. Your education isn’t on hold. What better time do you have than the present to think about participating in your community and in your community college?
Want personal enrichment classes? Music lessons? Fitness classes? Creative Writing? We’ve got those. Want to spend your stay at home time learning a foreign language? We’ve got that, too. Want to get ahead on your college credits in a less expensive way than heading away to college quite yet? We’ve got that, too. Are you out of work? We can also help with that. Decided that this crisis inspired you to pursue a career in Nursing? In Skilled Trades? In Public Health? In Education? In Business Management? In Journalism? In Political Science? In Music? We’ve got all that.
You’re considering making a choice. You’re at home. You feel like your options are limited. They aren’t. The community college is open for you and open to you. The college can help you; you can also help the college and the community.
Enroll. Be a part of your community.
Every student who has stepped into my classroom has made that choice, the same choice Toula makes in My Big Fat Greek Wedding: be brave and add to your life. It doesn’t matter what you class you came here for. What matters is that you make the choice to come and then you keep coming, class after class, log in after log in, day after day, stepping up. What matters is that you felt that urge to do something and harnessed it by stepping into the community that’s here for you, has always been here for you, and will keep being here for you and your family.
This is a love letter to Toula and to the community college. This is a love letter to my colleagues, carrying the virtual load of being both a college and a community resource. This is a love letter to my students; I see you putting shoulder to the wheel, and I respect you so much for it. This is a love letter to my community, sitting behind closed doors, despite their own financial losses, despite their own disappointments, despite everything, to protect the most vulnerable among us. This is a love letter to the idea of community, that all of us are stronger than one of us, that we redefine ourselves every day we make choices to better ourselves for the sake of something larger.
This moment, right here and now, is your chance to redefine yourself as a member of that community, to redefine what community even means. Toula’s father would give us a Greek lesson about it: you know, the word community comes from the Greek word koinonia, which means joint participation or a communion or fellowship. Koinonia, communitas, community: there you go.
For me, I see the community college as the beating heart of human excellence in the center of my world. It is, as the ancient Greeks defined and philosophized arete, excellence, knowledge, virtue, the pursuit of happiness, the very best of what makes us who we are. Add it to your life.