When the College Dropout Becomes the Professor

Lessons on making educational u-turns

Penny Zang
Dec 20, 2019 · 5 min read

I waited for the green arrow. It was 7:53 a.m. and my midterm exam started at 8. The commute wasn’t bad. 15 miles, a series of traffic lights, twenty to thirty minutes of driving depending on traffic. One straight shot from Brooklyn Park to Arnold, Maryland where I turned left into the community college when the arrow turned green.

I was 18. A few months before, I had tried to go away to college, but only lasted a week. When I came home, my mom made me register for whatever classes still had room at the last minute of the add/drop period. English, math, women’s studies (my favorite), and an 8 a.m. history class. At least I think it was a history class.

The arrow turned and instead of going to class, I swung the wheel into a sharp U-turn, drove all the way home, and went back to bed.

It took me only one semester to know, without a doubt, that college wasn’t for me. Unsurprisingly, I failed two of my classes the first semester because I stopped showing up. My two other teachers complimented my writing and asked why I wasn’t in a higher English class or why I hadn’t tested out. I shrugged. I didn’t want the attention. I just wanted to coast by. When I told my mom that I was taking a semester off to “figure things out,” she was less than thrilled. She was sure that if I took a break from college, I might never go back. Deep inside, I worried about the same thing.

Here is what happened instead: I took semesters off. I moved into my own place (with a roommate) and to pay rent, I got a full-time job. I took night classes, one per semester using student loan money. I chose classes I liked, such as creative writing, rather than ones I needed. I failed math more times than I can count. I was a horrible student, showing up late or not at all, never studying, never asking for help because the thought of speaking to a professor terrified me. And when I finally received my diploma for an Associates Degree in General Studies, four years later, I cried.

I now teach English full-time at a two-year college, working with students who remind me so much of my past self it hurts. Like me, they are scared and overwhelmed, full of panic and dread as they figure out the rest of their lives. They don’t know what careers they want or what majors to choose. They struggle in ways that are distinct from students at the four-year universities I’ve taught at.

On a regular basis, usually at a professional development session, someone in the front of the room mentions how hard it must be for us, the professors, to understand our students. After all, we were the bookish students who tested out of composition classes. Right? We liked studying and we always completed the required reading. My colleagues don’t disagree. I am often the only one who attended community college. When they wonder out loud why students wait so long to register or why they don’t come to office hours for help (things I have also caught myself saying out loud), I know the answer, but I can’t articulate it without giving myself away.

I was one of those students, I will sometimes say. You would have hated having me in your class.

18 year old “traditional” students aren’t the only ones in my classroom. My students (5–6 classes per semester, 25 students in each) are a mix of ages and experiences. In any given classroom I am likely to see dual-enrollment high school students, students fresh out of high school, students for whom English isn’t their only language, military veterans, and “non-traditional” students my age or older with kids and full-time jobs. It is a rewarding and overwhelming mix. So many students, so many learning styles and experiences.

Though my non-traditional students face their own set of challenges, they also bring an informed perspective and sense of purpose to class discussions and group work. They know what they are working towards and how education can change their life.

In this way they remind me of my mother who went to college when I was a child, taking classes at the community college, completing her homework at the dining room table right beside me as I studied my spelling words. She then went to nursing school and changed her life, as well as our family’s life.

I always say that my mother didn’t need to lecture me about the importance of education. She showed me instead.

When I realized that I almost had enough credits to graduate, I moved back home and focused on taking classes full-time. A teacher finally pulled me aside and asked what I planned to do next, after community college. She believed I had writing talent and that I should major in English even though everyone I had ever met told me not to bother with a useless degree like that. I transferred the next semester to a four-year school, graduated as an English major, and went directly to graduate school for my M.F.A. I was afraid to take any more breaks. I was older than many of my classmates and I wanted to finish.

The amount of privilege in this story is not lost on me. A supportive family and a couch to crash on is a gift I can never fully repay. I also can’t repay my former teacher for becoming my mentor, but I can attempt to offer the same type of guidance to others. My students are all on their own path, but I am ready on the sidelines, eager to help each step of the way.

My students want to learn. You can’t convince me otherwise. They aren’t messing up and forgetting to read the syllabus just to frustrate their teachers. They aren’t all lazy, waiting for others to do the work for them.

Here is what I have learned: it is possible to care about the results but self-destruct anyway.

Sometimes I laugh when I think about my journey, marveling even now at how I ended up teaching college when I was so sure that college just wasn’t right for me. Failure and indecision, making choices that no one understood but me, have made me a better teacher.

By the time my students make it to my classroom, I often think, they made it this far for a reason. They suffered through the admissions and the FAFSA paperwork. They endured long waiting lines to register, hours of orientation, and endless circles around the parking lot to find an available spot. I know how much effort that takes.

At any point, we could all decide to take a U-turn and go back home, but we don’t.

Penny Zang

Written by

English professor + book nerd + drinking buddy. Visit me at Pennyzang.com and Twitter: @penny_zang

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