I had the opportunity to walk up the same steps at Ellis Island that my father walked as a child coming to America. It was a significant and powerful experience for me. At the top of those stairs, you enter the Great Room. To the right you see The Statue of Liberty and to the left, the skyline of a nation. One can only imagine what it was like for those who walked those steps in search of a better life for themselves and their families.
Many in our community know firsthand the fears and frustrations of roads and bridges that have been washed away and closed by Tropical Storm Irene. Far too many in our nation know the fears and frustrations that are inevitable as the doors to opportunity are closing. It is as if a gate with a “Do Not Enter” sign is placed across that stairway of aspiration at Ellis Island. Hopelessness is the outcome.
I recently heard a book review on a local radio station in which the author made the statement that as the American Dream fades here in the United States; the hope of social and economic mobility is alive and thriving in India. That might not be a direct quote but the delivery of that statement and its impact resonates across the country. It seemed like all who were listening knew it to be true and all have accepted it.
Unfortunately, there is a developing foundation on which that statement can stand. Our middle class is in trouble. With a majority of the nation’s wealth limited to a small percent of the population, joblessness still increasing, housing and health care in crisis – and the costs to education soaring out of reach for most, the United States is moving toward a two class system. At a time of increasing poverty and a decreasing middle class; at a time of increasing isolation and decreasing hope; at a time when our nation does not seem to act on its stated egalitarian values – our community strives for something better.
Greenfield Community College offers hope for our community’s future. GCC alumni demonstrate that as a result of access to a college degree, lives do change for the better and families then do get stronger.
GCC held its commencement this past June. In that graduating class, there were many moms and dads juggling family, work and their college education. There were men and women who lost their jobs and then entered GCC eager to retool and restart in new directions. There were Veterans who came to GCC after serving their country. I met others in that class who chose GCC as a first choice because of its affordability and found a community of teachers and learners who said, “It really is a good thing to be an engaged and passionate learner.” Some had dropped out of high school, earned a GED, and then graduated with a degree. Many who graduated that day were in the middle of life’s transitions. Some came to our community from villages and communities around the world also in search of the dreams that come of hard work and opportunity. And in that class, just as in all of the GCC classes before, vast majorities were the first in their families to attend a college.
Greenfield Community College graduates are proof that with opportunity and hard work, America’s dreams are still alive.
GCC graduates discovered their voice and developed the courage to express it. Most important, each learned how to learn. No matter the job, no matter their age – that is the skill set that will serve them best. GCC alumni understand that learning is not something that you do as a student in preparation for life – learning is a way of life. Within each of our graduates, we find our community’s collective hope for tomorrow.
Yes, the pathway in our community to America’s Dreams does pass through the doors of Greenfield Community College. The ability of GCC to equip students with the knowledge and skills necessary for them to succeed is the result of our many community partners. Those partners include the public schools and hospitals, local banks and businesses, the safety net of human service providers, our elected leaders and all who contribute to our Foundation in support of students. GCC is able to keep the doors to opportunity open to all because of the many who work together to strengthen and sustain this community.
So, it is from the melting pot of our community, that each walked across the stage en route to becoming artists, writers, and web designers; nurses, doctors and CNAs; bankers, entrepreneurs and small business managers; police officers, fire fighters and EMTs; photovoltaic installers, engineers and the designers of tomorrow’s green technologies; teachers, lawyers and community leaders.
Now, they are all off to colleges such as Amherst, Mt Holyoke, Smith, UMass, MassArt, Rhode Island School of Design, Westfield State University, Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts or they are working at the jobs of their choice. Forty-five percent (45%) of GCC graduates over the past five years have transferred on to the college of their choice and 70% of those who graduated in one of our professional/career programs are employed or continuing their education within a year of graduation.
It is said that it takes a village to raise a child. Here in the most rural and northern part of the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts, our community works together to make good on the promises of a nation. This fall, GCC opened its doors to 2510, new and returning students. We welcomed each into something much more significant than our new building; we opened the doors to opportunity.
There might not be a replica of the Statue of Liberty welcoming all who enter GCC, but there might as well be. With the pursuit of their dreams, they are achieving the dream that our nation holds out for each of them. In so doing, they are holding out the lamp, illuminating a path, so that others may follow.
– Robert L. Pura