"How Attending A Community College Has Changed My Life"


By Nanelle Norcross, Black Hawk College
2000 Paul Simon Student Essay Contest Winner

Summoning the courage to enroll in Black Hawk College at the age of 47 took me by surprise. Over the years, I'd become expert at stifling the nasty, inner demons that constantly needled me about pursuing a degree.

Then, remarkably, one wintry Saturday morning, I found myself taking a seat in Mr. Murdock's English 101 class among a roomful of students young enough to be my children. The awkwardness and self-doubt that flowed from my pen that first day surrendered to enthusiasm, however, when Mr. Murdock returned my essay with one unforgettable comment written in his trademark green ink: "Your opinions will always be important in this class." In one defining act, he unknowingly had hooked me on higher education.

Now that I'm winding down my stay at Black Hawk, I realize that my community college experience has influenced me most noticeably in some ways that probably never will add a dollar to my paycheck or tap the wisdom I've culled from textbooks.

I've learned that confidence is the byproduct of preparation, and that success isn't necessarily achieved over a period of years but by stringing together minutes and seconds of concentrated effort, whenever they surface. I've logged hours of reading and writing in my car while waiting for my children to finish piano lessons or hockey practice.

I've learned to feed my imagination by feasting often in libraries and bookstores and never to feel embarrassment about wanting to add my own name to the shelves of best-selling authors.

I've learned to replace panic with self-discipline when matching wits on essay tests with veteran instructors because I now respect my own opinions and ability to express my point of view.

Of course, along the way I've also learned to factor polynomials . . . to track cumulus clouds across a summer sky . . . to design a computer spreadsheet . . . to write a sonnet . . . to name the movements of a Mozart symphony . . . to relish the tales of Eudora Welty . . . and to stretch my senses to exhaustion in the pursuit of good grades.

But as I look back on my college experience, I'm convinced that the most profound influences on my life haven't come from the printed page but from walking, talking "texts" -- the teachers, staff and students -- with whom I've bonded in the common pursuit of a diploma. Swapping opinions about the government with a young man displaced by corporate downsizing, or studying algebra beside a woman forced back to school when her spouse left her to support two children, or staying after class so an unselfish professor can edit my short story have formed ties and cemented memories that will last far beyond graduation day.

When I entered college I expected to make a mark for myself, by myself. Now I'm certain that in every effort, I was never left to struggle alone. And for me, that assurance will forever define the "community" in "community college."