Mountain View Voice

Opinion - July 30, 2010

Sharing life's lessons at Foothill

Retiring professor inspired by students who will give anything to learn

by Nancy Ginsburg Gill

In 1987, I started a job that I was sure would be merely a one- or two-year gig. But I ended up staying 23 years and am just now preparing to retire from my job as the director of Foothill College's English Writing Center. So what kept me here so long, despite a few very tempting, better-paid job opportunities over the years?

The most obvious answer is that this job has offered the gratification of knowing I have helped students become better writers and thinkers while sparing me the drudgery of grading piles of essays and the uncomfortable task of assigning grades to the essays I read.

But it's not the job itself as much as the nature of the community college and the students I work with that has kept me here for over two decades. The whole world is here — people of all ages, all socio-economic backgrounds, from all over the globe. An important part of my job is talking to these people as I help them identify ideas and experiences that are relevant to their assigned essay topics and readings.

Through my discussions with these students and the essays they write, I often find I am the learner as much as the coach. Becky, a refugee from Uganda, described watching her relatives killed in her country's civil war. Larry, a former homeless Vietnam vet, told me how a drug conviction that gave him the choice of jail or returning to school as part of a drug rehab program was the best thing that ever happened to him. Siamak, an Iranian of the Bahai faith, touched me with his stories of how hard life was in his country for non-Muslims.

I have learned from Chinese students who grew up during the Cultural Revolution, Vietnamese students who as young children were boat people, and Nepalese students who describe with sadness the chaos and violence that has destroyed their beautiful country. Two years ago, I marveled when Hamideh, one of our hijab-wearing Iranian students, joined up with our Israeli and American Jewish students to create the Peace and Tolerance Club.

The best part of the job has been the opportunity to work with re-entry students of all nationalities: students who after five, 10, sometimes even 30 or 40 years, have returned to school with an excitement that few 19-year-olds have. These students, many former high school dropouts, often start out terribly insecure, worried that they are too old or too dumb to start over again. But most soon discover that their life experiences and the wisdom that so often comes with age give them an edge over the younger students in their classes.

Older students are especially rewarding to work with because, unlike many straight-out-of high school students, they know exactly why they are in school. For them, returning has been their choice — not just a mandate from parents or society. And their drive, their eagerness to learn, and most of all the stories they have to tell, often benefit their younger classmates.

Some of these older students have gone on to achieve remarkable success. David, a high school dropout at 16, is now earning a doctorate at the University of Michigan. Lydia grew up in poverty in Guatemala, married and had a child when she was young. At Foothill, she excelled academically, transferred to Stanford, earned a law degree from UC Berkeley's Boalt Hall and is now practicing immigration law.

Sean, who had been a high school senior on 9/11, felt compelled to join the military on his 18th birthday. After five years in the Special Forces, he came to Foothill before transferring to Columbia University as an economics and political science major, planning to use his military background and university education to address the root causes of terrorism.

When students come back to visit, whether they're traditional students who entered college right after high school or re-entry students like Sean and Lydia, they usually tell me the same thing: no matter how prestigious the university and graduate programs they transfer to, they think of Foothill as the place that made the biggest difference in their lives. For here, they had teachers who inspired in them a love of learning and helped them believe in themselves and support services like the Writing Center that gave them the tools and confidence to achieve their goals.

I am convinced that our community college system is the unrecognized gem of the American education system. Here, anyone can give higher education a shot, no matter how dismal their high school records or how old they are. In America, it's never too late to learn and get a degree. And these students typically find instructors eager to give individual help and encouragement so their students will succeed. Students who have first gone to large four-year universities but come to Foothill for financial or personal reasons, often find that they have better, more caring and passionate teachers here than they had in classes at far more prestigious colleges.

Although I am looking forward to joining my husband in retirement and having more time to write, garden and travel, I am greatly saddened that my retirement coincides with Foothill's decision to eliminate all Language Arts support services as a consequence of the state's budget crisis. I know that Foothill, with its many gifted instructors, will continue to provide an excellent and affordable education to members of our community as well as the many out-of-state and international students who find their way here, attracted by its excellent reputation.

I am grateful that I started this job when the college recognized the value of having all of its students receive individualized feedback and encouragement from experienced writers and teachers but am disappointed — as are the hundreds of current and former students who tried to save the Writing Centers — that the college will no longer offer this kind of service. Despite this disappointment, I will always be grateful that this "temporary gig" allowed me to be a part of the hidden jewel of our education system.

Nancy Ginsburg Gill is retiring as director of the English Writing Center at Foothill College.

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