My Little School

The letter came from a 19-year-old student named Margaret.

“Dear Sean,” she began, “I want to attend [Blank] University, but I am forced to attend [Blank] Community College where I am receiving very little advice on how to actually BE a professional writer… All my podunk professors seem to do is grade papers and get excited over college football. Should I change schools?”

I’m going to stop you right there, Margaret.

First off, I seriously doubt that the only thing your professors get excited about is college football. There is also college baseball.

Secondly, you probably don’t mean to belittle your teachers by calling them “podunk,” but it isn’t fair to discredit your community-college professors simply because they don’t teach at a prestigious State U.

There is only one difference between community-college professors and big-boy-university professors, and it can be summed up in one simple word: Medical benefits, baby.

As we can see, math is not my strong suit. But then, there is a valid reason for this. I went to community college. This means that during all my math-class exams, most of my adult classmates were busy changing their babies’ poopy diapers directly on their desks. So I was distracted.

Still, I am a proud juco grad. It took me 11 arduous years to get through county college, and I appreciated each golden hour spent at my alma mater.

During my time at school, my college went through a series of name changes. The institution began in 1963 as Okaloosa-Walton Junior College. Years later it changed to Okaloosa-Walton Community College. Then the school renamed itself Okaloosa-Walton College, before it finally morphed into Northwest Florida State College. Meaning, I currently hold degrees from four institutions.

The fact is, when I was your age, Margaret, I would have given my left kidney to attend a major university. I wanted this more than anything. But now that I’m older, I realize that state universities cannot compete with the tight-knit, small-town feel of a community college.

This is mainly because most of your community-college professors are adjunct professors. The word “adjunct” comes from the Latin words “ad,” meaning “to be,” and “junct” meaning “poverty-stricken.”

Adjunct professors in the U.S. are contractual workers who don’t earn much. They usually drive old model cars with high mileage, and bumpers held together exclusively with duct tape. These professors work marathon hours and take home meager pay.

Out of the 1.8 million college faculty in the U.S., a whopping 700,000 are adjunct professors. What this means is that many of these professors are forced to work other jobs to supplement their incomes.

You might think this makes them “podunk,” but trust me, this works out in your favor as a student inasmuch as your teachers are actually working non-academic jobs.

Your local college profs are doing blue-collar stuff. They’re not sitting on the golden toilets of elite academia, squatting out new books every six months. Your adjunct professors are working part-time at Home Depot, raising five kids.

I have had professors who made their primary livings as commercial plumbers, auto mechanics, landscapers, musicians, factory workers, CPAs, librarians, and Hooters waitresses.

One of my English teachers, for example, was a factory worker who assembled circuit boards. He taught English and journalism during his free time.

This was a guy who did not waste precious class time discussing various interpretations of reiterative dialogue within the unabridged works of Marcel Proust. My teacher taught us how to drink Pabst Blue Ribbon during class hours.

I am quite serious about this. This happened long ago, during a night class. One evening, there were about 20 of us studying Mark Twain, eating our brown-bag suppers during class. We were all adults, and we had just gotten off work.

One of the students announced that he had a few cold ones in his lunch cooler. He offered a beer to the teacher. The teacher cracked open the aluminum can, shotgunned it, then resumed our lesson on the finer points of the subjunctive mood.

So let me close by saying, I’m not the guy you should be asking for academic advice. I freely admit that I don’t have a pedigree. I am a working-class dropout who returned to school after I had a mortgage. My classes often convened in doublewide trailers, and my professors had calluses on their hands.

Such as the hardworking old women who taught Literature II once upon a time. The old woman was so committed to helping me learn to write that she often arrived to class one hour early to help me understand the inner-workings of my favorite crime novels.

I saw her in the supermarket recently. We hadn’t seen each other in years. She asked what I did for a living and I told her I was a writer.

It was an emotional moment between us. She threw her arms around me and we both cried a little. Then she took my face in her wizened hands, looked me in the eyes, and said in her most sincere voice, “But what is your day job?”

That’s the kind of service you get at community college.

35 comments

  1. Dennis Browne - January 27, 2022 7:22 am

    I will always go to you for college advice !

    Reply
  2. Christina - January 27, 2022 7:35 am

    Never judge a writer by the college he went!

    Reply
  3. NancyB - January 27, 2022 7:53 am

    As proud graduate of a junior college, I concur with your assessment of the education received from small two-year colleges. Going there allowed me to work 20 hrs a week as well as carry 15-16 hrs a semester. I was not married so did not have the added responsibilities of a family as many of my classmates did. But the feeling of family among my classmates, professors, and administration was strong. Most, if not all, of my professors would have walked through fire for me. Today some of my dearest friends are from my days as a junior college student. I was fully prepared to continue my educational pursuits at a “big name” university after I graduated from junior college. The culture shock between the two institutions was great. Size of classes. Size of campus. Professors who wouldn’t have recognized me if I had ran into them at the Student Center. People in the same class who never smiled or said hi during the entire semester.] But I was prepared to handle that change due to my junior college experience. I graduated with no college debt and with that big name” university on my resume. Several years later I completed my Masters at a large university. But it was all because of the foundation I received at my small junior college as a lowly freshman and sophomore. I would never, then or now, consider it a “podunk” education. Thank you, Sean, for your words to this young lady. I hope she learns to appreciate what she now has in her life at her small community college.

    Reply
  4. Ed (Bear) - January 27, 2022 10:16 am

    Writing is something your tell tale heart teaches you

    Reply
  5. Melanie Waite - January 27, 2022 12:25 pm

    My experience was different, but the outcome was the same. I started my university experience at a large state university famous for football. Classes in general were huge. I learned that students can’t ask questions when they sit with 200 or 300 other students in an auditorium, while a TA check roll from seat numbers. TA’s teach lab classes. The department head makes out the test for the whole department, and includes what he covered in class, without regard to whether the other teachers taught that material. Grades were based on midterm and final exams. In one science class, I made a B and a C. Average C. In the companion lab class, I earned two B’s, average B. Average lab with lecture, B and C and my grade for the class was C. I discussed it with the professor and he said that was the system and my grade would be C. I’d never made a C in my life before. Now, it was also an AG school, and we ate well in the dorm cafeteria. We enjoyed the freshest of fruits and vegetables, and dairy products made right on campus. It was very expensive, and I spent a lot of time walking from one building to another on a huge campus. The scholarship I was awarded seemed like a lot of money, but it wasn’t enough to cover my basic expenses.
    So I transferred to a small community college, where I could pay my bills with on-campus jobs and several smaller scholarships. Classes were much smaller, and my professors knew my name instead of my number. They were willing to explain and answer questions. The professor taught the class and made out the exams. I learned so much more at the small college than I ever did at the prestigious university. Plus, the college became a university during my tenure there. Downside was that they didn’t have a football team. Oh, well….

    Reply
  6. Helen De Prima - January 27, 2022 12:37 pm

    One of your best! You might also tell the young lady with her nose in the air that the best way to become a writer is to write, not to expect the magic to be delivered in magic pills by someone else.

    Reply
    • Peggy - January 27, 2022 6:17 pm

      That is exactly the truth. This young lady may have the misconstrued idea that the teacher/professor is going to do her writing for her. The only way to learn how to write is to write. Yes, have it critiqued and learn from others. READ. READ. READ. WRITE WRITE WRITE. That is how you learn to write. There are thousands of students who are deeply in debt because for some misguided reason they believed if they got a diploma from some “top” college, it would give them a better life, a leg up on other graduates. It does not. The leg up is the drive to out work everyone else. YOU are responsible for what you learn. NOT any professor, teacher, or anyone else. YOU>

      Reply
  7. Leigh Amiot - January 27, 2022 1:16 pm

    Students should visit Investopedia and look up an article entitled “Is An Ivy League Degree Worthwhile”. One of my sons showed me a graph which mapped salaries out of the gate from ivy league schools and “podunk” schools. The ivy leaguers had great initial advantage, but within a handful of years the lines on the graph did something interesting, they merged. I suspect that merge had a lot to do with each individual’s motivation and not the name of their school.

    Helen, your comment made me laugh.

    Reply
  8. Paul McCutchen - January 27, 2022 1:19 pm

    I started out in a junior college but transferred to a major university. Flunked out then years and years went by and I went to another state and tried the junior college again and this time I finished. You were right about the teachers. I got my degree in Heating and Air or HVAC. People thought it should be simple but try taking regular college classes, like basic physics along with English and other academic courses, and finishing up the evening learning the circuit board of a residential furnace. I received my certification in Heating and Air but still liked two courses to finish my degree. My counselor set me down and explained how hard I had worked and since I still needed two courses to get my Associates Degree. She was able to get me the two courses on line and I could scan and e-mail the work, then come in on week-ends and take my test so that is what I did. She explained to the company I started working for what she and I were doing and they worked out my schedule. I don’t know if I would have gotten the same treatment in a larger college. So yea, I am a fan of Junior Colleges. Mine was Griffin Tech or now it is Southern Crescent Technical College.

    Reply
  9. Jan - January 27, 2022 1:27 pm

    Brings back memories … I started my college career at a major university then dropped out to get married. Next to a community college where I graduated with an Associate’s degree. Years later I attended two other major universities to get my B.S. and M.ED. They each played a major role in my life but the most direct assistance I received was at the community college where as the saying goes “everyone knows your name …”.

    Reply
  10. Norma+Den🇿🇦 - January 27, 2022 1:35 pm

    There’s more to life than a University degree. My daughter a highly qualified midwife with her own practise employing 4 other midwives at her birth center. They average over 200 births a year. She did a full time nursing diploma in 4 years college & ward work, including psychiatric nursing in the infamous psychiatric hospital in the country. Trained in squatter camps & townships. Since then she got her advanced midwifery degree part time. Is better qualified & knowledgeable than every University degreed “know all” she’s come across in her 30 years of experience. Some can’t even set up a drip or administer an injection. Makes one think…..go figure.

    Reply
  11. Mary - January 27, 2022 2:13 pm

    Awesome! Thank You! Love your stories!
    Keep ‘em coming, please.

    Reply
  12. Steve McCaleb - January 27, 2022 2:22 pm

    Community colleges have been the saving grace for millions of Americans trying to better themselves ( and the trajectory of their family’s future) for many years now. The only people I know who are seriously concerned about about the pedigree of your degree are found on reruns of the tv program “Frazier”.

    Reply
  13. Evangeline Vandenberg - January 27, 2022 2:39 pm

    I love how tall you are, how you know the lives of the ordinary and make them extraordinary. Thank you.

    Reply
  14. Cathy M - January 27, 2022 3:13 pm

    A college degree is a college degree. The difference is what you do with that degree. Not everyone can afford to attend a major university and Where would we be without Jr. Colleges and community college? This young lady needs an attititude adjustment. My two sons attended large state universities. My daughter we
    My to a small Methodist college and had a personal relationship with her professors who actually wanted to see her graduate. She was not just a number. I think we are so fortunate to have educational opportunities for everyone. Life hanging for a single parent who wants to give her children a better life. Straighten up and fly right to the young lady with a bad attitude

    Reply
  15. Ruth Mitchell - January 27, 2022 3:15 pm

    I love, love this because I was once an adjunct instructor at a community college. My day job was teaching high school, but I really enjoyed teaching adults at night. Yes, I did it so we could pay bills and send our own children to college. Furthermore, I definitely drove an old rattle-trap and wore clothes from three past decades. What I discovered in community college was that the teachers “taught”! There were no assignments of busy work. We arrived as early as we could and stayed late to meet with students. I believe strongly in community colleges, and I am so thankful that many who are truly serious about learning take advantage of opportunities to attend them.

    Reply
  16. Don Bedell - January 27, 2022 3:35 pm

    I was told many years ago that the BEST path was to go to a community college for the first two years, then transfer over. Not the opportunity to party when you are living at home. The professors were real, not teaching assistants who were hard to understand and you were much less of a number. Easier to get into a name college as many of their undergraduates had dropped out (too much partying). Costs a lot less…… All good!

    Reply
  17. Evelyn Mann-Wilder - January 27, 2022 3:38 pm

    I went to a junior college and then transferred to a major university for my undergraduate degree and then to a state college for my masters degree, so I am a consumer of all types of our higher educational institutions. I can say that Shasta Junior college in Redding, California was, by far, the most important piece of my educational experience. Teachers cared and I was an individual with a name who was encouraged and well supported. I, too, graduated without any college debt. My brother had the same experience and ended up spending his career as an attorney. As a psychotherapist, I encourage my clients who are wanting to dip their toes into higher learning to go back to school at our local junior college. It can’t be beat!

    Reply
  18. Bonnie Vandercook - January 27, 2022 4:05 pm

    I have gone to two community colleges in my lifetime. One at age 23 in Oregon, the other in Florida at age 50. I completely agree with the hometown feel and accessibility to professors. I also found many of my teachers actually worked in the field they were teaching. You could ask your teacher almost anything and get an immediate answer. Most also stayed after class to help you through something you did not understand initially. They not only knew my name, they knew me. Case in point being my algebra class. One day my professor just came out and stated “I don’t know why you are not getting this, you are such a logical thinker”. I told him that logically speaking, a + b = c made absolutely NO sense to me. I think he gave me a passing grade because I tried so hard. You and me Sean, math stinks.

    Reply
  19. Gayle Wilson - January 27, 2022 4:15 pm

    Sean, some of the best teachers I had were at my local community college. Not just for the content of their lessons, but also because they believed I could succeed. That was worth more than a PHD (piled higher and deeper) could ever offer.

    Reply
  20. Mary Anne Brannon - January 27, 2022 4:15 pm

    I am very proud of my B.A. degree from a small college in my hometown. Daddy borrowed $325 for the 1st semester..that tells you how old I am. I made $.75/hour working the switchboard in the office…..only 3 incoming lines. The President called me blondie….I was in dance class with his daughter. Thankful for my major professors and those who made my college days memorable. Nothing like the small-town atmosphere.

    Reply
  21. mollytoddmccgmailcom - January 27, 2022 5:49 pm

    Oh, Sean, you brought tears to my eyes with your beautiful praise of community colleges. I have experience as a public school teacher at every level, from kindergarten through community college. I also have a B.A. degree and a Master’s degree, My heart belongs to the community college for all the love and care there. You are absolutely correct in your description of the differences in community college professors and university professors. The community college professors love their subject matter and are more inclined to care that their students learn. The university professors must “publish or perish.” So, their focus is on creating research and push it to some academic journal in order to enhance their standing as “educators.” Their first and second year classes are usually taught by graduate students in order to pay their expensive tuitions. These young teachers usually have no experience as teachers and the community college teachers of the same classes have years of experience. I know that the four year colleges told us at the community college that they were always happy to have our former students because they had a good work ethic in addition to knowing the subject matter. By the way, I paid for my education through scholarships, both academic and financial need. Personally, I’m not in favor of completely free community colleges. Those students who had their own financial investment in their education tended to value it much more highly than the students who were there on athletic scholarships because they just wanted to “play ball.” So please continue to be a supporter or community colleges because you stand as one of our shining examples. Sending you much love and admiration for all that you have accomplished.

    Reply
  22. Carol Anne Keene - January 27, 2022 6:46 pm

    A great story Sean

    Reply
  23. Pat - January 27, 2022 7:14 pm

    Proud recipient of 2 Associate of Arts degrees, here!! Graduated from a JC nursing school and received the same Registered Nursing license as those with a Bachelor of Science degree. Had I been younger, I may have gone on to earn a Bachelor’s degree. However, graduating from Nursing School at my local community college in my late 40’s, I was able to earn a good income in my 50’s and 60’s as a Registered Nurse. My professors were “top notch”, too!!

    Reply
  24. kathiekerr54 - January 27, 2022 7:31 pm

    Here is practical advice for the letter writer. If you want to be a writer, you must write. Go to the library and collect as many local or regional magazines and newspapers as they have. Make a detail file on each: what they cover, who the editor is and if they accept freelancers. Then write something you are proud of and that they have shown interest in and talk to the editor and submit. Writers don’t learn to write in college. They learn to write by feedback and rejection letters. Get off you butt and write.

    Reply
  25. Peggy - January 27, 2022 7:36 pm

    Absolutely right.

    Reply
  26. Kathie Kerr - January 27, 2022 7:36 pm

    I’m a professional writer. I’m here to tell you that writers don’t learn to write in college. They learn by writing and getting feedback from editors and rejection letters. Go to your library and look for any and all local and regional publications. Make a detailed file on each. Note what they cover, the editor’s contact information and if they accept freelancers. Then write and submit.

    Reply
  27. Sean of the South: My Little School | The Trussville Tribune - January 27, 2022 8:16 pm

    […] By Sean Dietrich, Sean of the South […]

    Reply
  28. Jane - January 27, 2022 9:35 pm

    I’ll add to the praise of Community Colleges with my son’s experience. He went one semester to an expensive large state university for engineering. Every class had hundreds of students and he was so lost. He thought it was him, but it wasn’t. I went to pick him up for Christmas break and he had ALL his bags packed. We spent the day running around to cancel everything there. The following week we went to Cuyahoga Community College (Ohio) and he signed up there, and got to talk to an experienced advisor and was on board for the spring semester. Living at home helped with expenses, and he had the freedom of driving himself. He got a great part time job and worked and paid for school himself. It took 4 years, but he has an associates degree in manufacturing and industrial engineering technology, a certificate in CAD, no debt, and got an engineering job within 2 weeks of graduating. He also took many electives to set himself up in case he wanted to pursue a bachelor’s degree. He really enjoyed his history classes, humanities, urban planning, and writing classes. He enjoyed the small class sizes (25 in his math and physics classes, 12 in engineering classes, and so on) and getting to know his teachers and fellow students. He is very happy doing what he does, and we are very proud of him for figuring it out early that he needed a different learning environment to achieve his dream of being an engineer.

    Reply
  29. Linda Moon - January 27, 2022 9:43 pm

    Marcel Proust! “Proust and the Squid” is all about the reading brain. My brain loves to read Sean Dietrich’s letters or thoughts, so I’m glad to read about Margaret today. I’m glad the old hardworking prof taught you and now knows you’re a writer. “Reader, Come Home” to anything Sean Dietrich writes, I say!

    Reply
  30. MAMMAM - January 27, 2022 10:29 pm

    Reading is THE most important thing to do before ever attempting to write. You must have a knowledge of structure (which by the way, Sean has the best structure sense of any writer I can think of), and then just sit down and write. The more you write, the easier it gets. Just do it!

    Reply
  31. peggy@peggysanders.com - January 28, 2022 3:32 am

    I would encourage readers to check out the Mike Rowe Foundation, He stresses work ethic. It is for students who want to learn a trade and those people are in such demand. The reader who posted this reminded me to mention it. “He got a great part time job and worked and paid for school himself. It took 4 years, but he has an associates degree in manufacturing and industrial engineering technology, a certificate in CAD, no debt, and got an engineering job within 2 weeks of graduating.” Not everyone needs a four or five year college degree.

    Reply
  32. Paige B Hill - January 28, 2022 10:18 pm

    Wow, Sean! That hit home! I got my education at a community college close to home in my 30’s – while working during the day and raising 2 elementary school aged children. It was one of the most rewarding milestones of my life! My professors cared so much about each of their students. I made GREAT grades during those three years I attended – mostly due to the fact that my professors cared as much as I did, a sister who was willing to stay up hours with me to help me with my studies, but most of all the desire and willingness to study hard and achieve those good grades. Those years of hard work paid off in advancing my vocation as a legal assistant as well as helping my children along the way with their own studies. Just because you choose to go to a “community” college doesn’t mean you aren’t getting the education you would at a state college. I felt I received a WONDERFUL education and loved most of my teachers. I was one of the older students in my classes, but many of us had so much in common due to the fact we had families and jobs. Our professors understood that fact – Mama and Daddy weren’t sending us to school on their dime – we paid for it ourselves and made the best of it. Seems when an education is gained that way, we strive for excellence – and most achieve it! Thank you professors, and my sister, for giving me a step up not only in my education, but in advancing my knowledge in many things as well as my vocation. It gave me the confidence to step out and do things I would never have done before I went to community school!

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  33. CHARALEEN WRIGHT - January 30, 2022 5:01 pm

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  34. Vince - February 1, 2022 5:32 pm

    Maybe one has to finish at a big University but starting there is often a bad idea. I’ve seen many drop out with big debt on their hands. I went to JC’s (in person and distance.. online before there was online) and earned an AA and got an excellent education. You are a name not a number. You can actually get to know your classmates and profs. Bonus for me was I had the same prof for all 3 semesters of Calc. No getting to understand the prof’s style 3 times. And the cost -dirt cheap compared to the big school. The basics are the basics if you pay $100 or $400 per credit hour. Extra bonus: if you get good grades earning your AA you just might get a scholarship to the big school based upon that. Big school did you say? Don’t look past small universities either. For me it was university but the feel was just like the JC. My adviser knew I was the new guy even before I first meeting because she saw a new face in the hallway. You will not get that at a large school. Finished post grad work at a big school.. part time night classes. Never wanted for work either. Even though I went to schools no one in New England ever heard of first job was a large well known company. Grade point average is everything to big companies. Then, as the Investopedia study showed, it is up to you to continue to improve.

    My kids are already sick to death of hearing ‘go to the JC first’. Of course all their friends are thinking Ivy League (New England…smh) from day one. The oldest is in 6th grade.

    Avoid the big school trap. About the only time the school name counts is for post grad (PhD, med school, etc) because of who teaches there.. not the name of the school. You will be richer in $, community, and real world experience.

    Reply

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