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“GCC: The Balance Wheel of the Social Machine” by President Bob Pura

Posted on Saturday September 15th 2012

I met Dr. William Cosby 9 years ago on our field under a tent speaking with students. Our neighbor Bill said “Earning a degree at GCC was like buying a suit from a tailor and not just buying one off the rack.” I liked that one!   He went on to say, “Without community colleges there would be no democracy, there would be no United States.”   Dr. Cosby of course was talking about access – equal access to opportunity – the opportunity embedded in the values, ideals and principles of this grand experiment we call democracy.

Thomas Jefferson wrote, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”  He added, “When the people are well informed, they can be trusted with their own government.”  With those words Jefferson places education as the foundation of democracy. He felt so strongly about the importance of education to the sustainability of democracy that in his State of the Union address in 1806 he said, “Education is here placed among the articles of public care.”

About 35 years later, then Massachusetts Secretary of Education Horace Mann wrote, “According to the European theory, men are divided into classes, some to toil and earn, others to seize and enjoy.  According to Massachusetts’ theory, all are to have an equal chance for earning, and equal security in the enjoyment of what they earn… it is the highest duty of a state.”  Later in that report he writes, “Education, then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is a great equalizer of the conditions of men – the balance wheel of the social machinery.”

Those are the same ideals, values and principles that are at the core of the current national debate on the purpose of higher education.  The choices are increasingly clear: European tracking or the balance wheel of our society.

Robert Frost wrote “my object in living is to unite my avocation and vocation as my two eyes make one in sight.”  At GCC, we strongly believe that the preparation for a good job should never come at the cost of the preparation for a good life.   They are not mutually exclusive goals.   Access to an education that prepares students for a life filled with opportunities for employment, civic engagement and quality of life are embedded in the work of the faculty and staff at GCC every day.  Over the past 50 years, that comprehensive mission, providing access to both workforce and transfer opportunities, has served over 200,000 students.  As a result, lives changed for the better, families grew stronger and so too our community.

Many in our community know firsthand the fears and frustrations of roads and bridges closed by Irene.  Far too many know similar emotions as the doors to opportunity close.  It is as if a banner with the words “Do Not Enter” is placed across the entry at Ellis Island.  Hopelessness is the outcome.

At a time of a decreasing middle class; increasing uncertainty and decreasing hope; at a time when our nation does not seem to act on its stated egalitarian values – our college and this community strive for something better.

Democracy does not flourish in a separate and unequal society; it is the outcome of our collective commitment to provide a good education for all. GCC holds out that lantern and provides hope for our students and this community.

GCC held its commencement this past June and 351 students earned 275 Associate Degrees and 76 Certificates.   Each in that graduating class studied math, science and the English language. They can now communicate more effectively, think more critically and solve problems more creatively.  GCC graduates have learned more about other people, other cultures – and they have learned more about themselves.  Most significantly, each learned how to learn.

Now, they are all off to colleges such as Mt Holyoke, UMass, Amherst, Smith, MCLA, MassArt and Rhode Island School of Design or working at the jobs of their choice.  Forty-five percent (45%) of GCC graduates over the past five years have transferred and 70% of those who graduated in one of our career programs are employed or continuing their education within a year of graduation.

So, it is from the melting pot of our community, that each walked across the stage en route to becoming nurses, EMTs and CNAs; bankers and entrepreneurs; police officers and fire fighters: photovoltaic installers and the designers of tomorrow’s green technologies; artists and web designers; teachers, lawyers and community leaders – social and economic mobility in every step.

There are many these days talking the talk about the American Dream.  Few however, walk the walk like this community and its college.  Make no mistake about it; there is a direct link between the GCC comprehensive mission and that American Dream.

This fall, GCC opened its doors to 2,500 new and returning students.  We welcomed each into something much more significant than a series of classrooms and offices; we opened the doors to opportunity.

There might not be a replica of the Statue of Liberty welcoming all students 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.  That path of hope and those roads to opportunity must never be washed away, no matter how heavy the rains.

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