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Dowling: Getting Ready

College students spend years of their lives and thousands of dollars getting a diploma they hope will get them lucrative and fulfilling jobs - that takes perseverance. But as a member of the Community College of Vermont’s faculty, I’ve seen what real grit looks like. CCV has open enrollment and it’s a true melting pot. Because I teach public speaking, I’ve been honored to hear many personal accounts of danger and deprivation in far-away places - and some from right here in Vermont.

The childhood of one of my students was spent running from the military in the jungles of Myanmar. My student explained that she had been entrusted with the cherished “book” - an elementary school primer used to teach all the children who were on the run with their parents. One day the group was caught and all the adults were executed. Eventually, my student made it to a refugee camp where she was able to continue her education. Now she lives here - safe, in a real school, and is working to help other children in Myanmar get an education. I felt enriched by her presence, as I have by every story I’ve heard about life in places like Bosnia, Sudan, Nepal and Iraq.

And speaking of Iraq, one class included a woman who had fled Baghdad with her children – as well as four former soldiers, two of whom had fought there. I was nervous - but my fears were unnecessary. CCV students want to see their classmates succeed - no matter what. What’s more, stories told by refugees, and military personnel, offer a glimpse of our complex world to those who’ve never left the relative safety of their Vermont homes.

But there are also those whose homes weren’t safe; those whose stories often feature abuse, poverty, and addiction.

One young dad worked harder than most. Kicked out by a violent stepfather when just 15, he was and is determined to change things for his family. A devoted parent - like so many of my students - he never made excuses and he never took a day off.

I’ve been inspired by classes filled with working moms, young people moving past memories of bullying, and middle-aged adults setting new goals. Many are first generation graduates – and some go on to matriculate into four year schools where they become highly valued.

Summer vacation is a welcome break, but I look forward to a new year of laughter and tears, tattoos and flip flops, and attitudes that reflect both deep commitment and justifiable pride. The days that begin before dawn, the long nights of reading, weekends spent indoors writing, lunch hours devoted to that next assignment - and the debt – will be worth the effort. They will persevere. They will change their worlds - and they will change ours too.

Leora Dowling is a public speaking and communications teacher and consultant.
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