AuthorKirshner, Jodie Adams
PositionSouthwest Tennessee Community College

In late spring 2019, Linda enrolled in her freshman year at Southwest Tennessee Community College (SWTCC), a public, two-year, open-admissions college in Memphis. The school charges in-state tuition of roughly $4,500 a year, but it is free for students, such as Linda, who are eligible for full Pell Grants. The modern campus has a predominantly African American student body. And Linda, a Black returning student in her mid-50s, looked forward to the fall semester. Full of ideas for starting her own business, she had been working as a home health aide--mainly for Alzheimer's patients, whom she joked around with and seemed to love--but now the determined student had what she called a "game plan." "I want to work with kids and help them through problems at home the school system ignores before they get to a point where they fight their teachers and the schools put them out," Linda told me. "I want to be the one to make a difference."

Linda tested below college level in math, English, and reading. But before entering community college, Linda learned about a free summer bridge program run by a local nonprofit, which coordinated with SWTCC and offered condensed instruction in those subjects, followed by another round of testing. If Linda passed, the program could help her avoid remedial courses that didn't earn her credits. It also offered opportunities. She met a program coach who could help her navigate college life and even assist with a possible transfer to a four-year college once she completed her associate's degree. At lunchtime every day, Linda and other incoming SWTCC participants gathered for a free meal provided by the program. Speakers offered advice about what to expect in college. Three weeks later, Linda passed her math placement test: "I was like, 'Let's get it!' " said the longtime Memphis resident, who has a big, deep laugh. "The summer program helped me find my footing."

Few students arrive at SWTCC well prepared. In fact, in Memphis, half the students who graduate from local public high schools and enter in-state public colleges require at least one remedial class. At SWTCC, about 70 percent of students are eligible for federal Pell Grants, compared with just 15 percent at Ivy League institutions. Roughly a third of SWTCC students are, like Linda, over 25 years old. Within three years of full-time classes, pursuing what is typically considered a two-year degree, only about 10 percent of students graduate, and little more than 5 percent transfer to four-year colleges. But Linda seemed determined to complete her degree. "This is my time, and I'm willing to put in the effort," she said. "Where my head is right now is getting my bachelor's degree, so let's get this part over with."

I wrote about Linda and several of her SWTCC classmates for this magazine last year. At the time, I worried about how the novel coronavirus and the concomitant shutdown of in-person instruction would affect students like her, who statistics indicated faced unlikely odds--even before the pandemic--of achieving associate's degrees, let alone transferring to four-year colleges.

As I spent time with Linda, however, she seemed relatively unfazed by the disruption to in-person classes. In her second year at SWTCC, she posted journal entries for her social psychology class. For a theater class, she wrote a paper about the difference between a live performance of The Wizard of Oz and watching Hamilton on TV. She found a job at a nursing home that paid enough to cover her textbooks, and she considered the responsibilities a useful counterpart to her sociology major. Even after testing positive for COVID-19, Linda stayed up late to watch online lectures after her shifts and imagined herself moving to a better position at the nursing home after completing her associate's degree. She also envisioned working with youth once she achieved her bachelor's degree. However sleep deprived she might get, Linda told me, she would do what was necessary to succeed.

"This is where I'm supposed to be," she said. "I'm going to school. I'm going to school. Or else SWTCC will have to put me up out of here. You can get all the certificates in the world, all the training in the world. But when you have a degree behind your name, that degree makes everything else mean more."

Nevertheless, after many of the initial supports provided by the summer program faded away, Linda seemed unprepared to seek the help she needed to get ahead on her own. Crucially, assuming that she would graduate, she waited until the end of her fourth full-time semester to take the necessary steps to transfer to the University of Memphis, a local, public four-year school. "Right now, I have to focus. I have to grind this," Linda said, explaining her rationale. "I'm just trying to get through." She intended to take fewer classes at the university each semester, which she expected would make the final "two years" to the bachelor's degree easier for her. "And with the work study stuff there, I will still be at school and able to do work, and I'll be getting paid," she said.

As Linda approached the end of her second year at SWTCC, she anticipated a happy, post-graduation summer, catching up with family and friends and preparing to start at the university. Since enrolling at SWTCC, she had stopped watching television and taken a smaller apartment.

But when she filled out an SWTCC form for students intending to graduate, Linda discovered that she had several more classes to complete to reach the 60 credits required for her degree. The remedial courses, she learned, did not count toward that number, and she also had failed a credit-bearing class while simultaneously enrolled in the remedial class supporting it.

Undeterred, Linda signed up for a third fall semester and took a new job, driving patients to their doctor's appointments. The position came with health insurance, which Linda had never had, and a 401k retirement plan. Her shifts, however, were longer than at the nursing home and--because they demanded lifting clients on and off stretchers and wheelchairs--left her more fatigued, reducing her motivation to study into the night.

As days went by with little rest, Linda considered dropping out. More than two years of full-time work and full-time community college had caught up with her. Eventually, she decided that she had accomplished enough. She...

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