By Aaron Kelson
Instructor at Mesabi Range Community and Technical College
Every student has a story. When an instructor looks into the eyes of each of his students on the first day of class and knows that he is about to become part of that story it is a sobering moment. Students’ eyes reflect a stream churning with experiences and attitudes, abilities and concerns, hopes and dreams. Stepping into this stream time and time again tends to change almost every instructor. The changes happen slowly, virtually imperceptibly. But, over time the instructor finds that such meaningful contact with other people has made him a different person. Should we say a better person? I think so.
On May 11, 360 people will graduate from Mesabi Range Community and Technical College. My colleagues and I have been part of their life stories for at least a year, sometimes as long as four or five years. They will receive some well deserved recognition when they receive their diplomas. We honor them, but we also remember that their accomplishments extend far beyond the students themselves. Choosing to enter the educational world is making the choice to engage with the rest of humanity. It is making the choice to trust other people enough to allow them to become part of one’s life stream.
Most of the graduates of Mesabi Range College have begun to understand how education binds us together. This principle was expressed well by Elizabeth Jackson in her book The Faith and Fire within Us: an American Credo, published in 1944 by the University of Minnesota, “Democracy alone among forms of government has everything to gain and nothing to lose from the intelligence of its citizens.” The great American experiment, the belief that people can govern themselves, depends completely on citizens who trust each other enough to learn from each other. It depends on people who know that in the process of trustworthy engagement we are all changed for the better.
Community colleges are on the front lines in the battle to provide higher level education to America’s citizens. Mesabi Range College has been striving to do that on the Iron Range for over 90 years, tracing its beginning to the establishment of Eveleth Junior College in 1918 and Virginia Junior College in 1921. Looking back into the eyes of those who have chosen to learn here, we find countless stories that demonstrate how meaningful the pursuit of education is to the people of our region.
In an online class this semester, I asked students to post a summary of what they are sacrificing to pursue education at this time. Here are a just few of many responses, poignant insights into the streams of their lives that have spilled beyond former banks to now encompass all that Mesabi Range College represents:
“I spend anywhere from 10-14 hours a day away from home, my wife, and my children. Now with school, even less time to be with my family. Again as I am writing this post, I am asking myself WHY? All I can come up with is the opportunity to someday soon, start a new business adventure closer to home, even though it is at the cost of my family time now.”
“Being a single parent, working full-time, and deciding to go back to school to finish my degree came at a big cost. I had to give up much of my personal time spent with family, friends, and social gatherings.”
“What bothers me the most is the time taken from my family. I also work full time and pick up overtime when possible. I am the only one working in my household right now and putting three people including myself through school and keeping a roof over my 15 year old son’s head and food on the table can be quite a challenge sometimes.”
Some students may not yet fully understand what an exceptional privilege it is to engage with their fellowmen through the educational process, but statements like the ones repeated here demonstrate that many students are willing to sacrifice a great deal for the chance to participate in society. We honor the graduates on May 11 for good reason.
Education has always been difficult. My family and I know something about that. I began my college career in 1979, and, thanks to a few important diversions along the way, I didn’t complete my graduate training until 1997. By then, my wife and I had four children. We know what it is like to live in a small two-bedroom cinder block apartment in a student housing complex for six years. We know what it is like to work, go to school, and raise children at the same time. Students continue to face such monumental challenges. And, arguably, the hurdles are even more imposing. From 1980 through 2009, the average real cost to attend an institution of public higher education in the U.S. increased by 108 percent. To add some perspective for many students, during this same time period the real minimum wage rate in the U.S. fell by nine percent.
These trends remind us that education has always involved sacrifice, for students and for society. With such awareness, Elizabeth Jackson pointedly asked, “Is it faith or madness that makes us attempt it? And is not the very fact of the attempt one of the most astounding demonstrations of the vigor of American democracy?”
When the 360 Mesabi Range College graduates receive their diplomas they will have succeeded. And, the rest of us will have succeeded with them. If those who attend the ceremony on May 11 look around the William L. Wirtanen gymnasium carefully they will glimpse the depth of that success reflected in the eyes of parents, children, friends, community members, and some deeply moved instructors. That will be reason to celebrate in America for the blessings that come only to a free, and united, people.