Holding two truths: ‘Thickening’ the narrative on community college students


In narrative therapy, a technique that asks clients to examine the stories they tell themselves, “thin” and “thick” are used to help users seek out more complicated, subtle and meaningful stories. The time is now to thicken the narrative of who community college students are and what they can offer the institutions where they transfer.

Yet, considering the strengths/assets of community college students doesn’t fit well with our country’s dominant narrative, one where it is implied that the students who go directly to a four-year school are smarter, more ambitious or just plain “better.”

A community college graduate myself, I have taught in that setting for more than 15 years and witnessed firsthand the creativity and resiliency of these students. In my current role at Vassar College, I am now focused on programs that help those students find academic homes in liberal arts institutions. A first step is to recognize the negative stereotypes they must overcome.

Broaden our understanding

While it’s true that community college students often face unique challenges, we’ve been thinking about them too narrowly. We need to challenge ourselves to hold two truths simultaneously: this group of students might have less-than-stellar graduation rates, and at the same time, they remain resilient, tenacious and vital to our college landscape. They possess multifaceted identities which deepens what they bring to the four-year experience, but we don’t yet know how to recognize, honor and welcome those facets.

For example, for the children of immigrants, do higher education professionals know how to recognize the complexity of identities these students navigate and manage outside of the classroom and in their families? Do instructors know how to help students identify and draw upon these strengths inside the classroom?

It isn’t an easy task to find the counter-narrative to those deficiencies we hear so much about. By focusing on the students’ lack of preparedness or even their grit, we avoid having to shift the burden of poor completion rates to the systems rather than the individual. Instead of discussing how they have been strategically and historically underserved, it has been much easier to malign the student than the system they have navigated.

If one were to search for a positive consideration of this distinct group of students, it’s a thin field of material: Keeping Us Engaged (Stylus Publishing) by Christina Harrington is very encouraging but does not focus solely on community college students, and What Excellent Community Colleges Do (Harvard Education Press) by Josh Wyner is a positive read. There’s even some research into this such as “Transfer Student Success: Exploring Community College, University, and Individual Predictors” found in the Community College Journal of Research and Practice (October 2018).

On the other hand, the narrative about community college students seems to be one of negativity: “About 80% of those entering community college intend to move on to pursue a bachelor’s degree, but only 30% transfer, and a mere 13% earn a bachelor’s within six years.” However, for those students who do transfer, they actually do better than most of us know: “One 2009 study found that community college students who transferred to public flagship universities were as likely to graduate as those who started there, and that community college students who transferred to less selective public four-year institutions had a greater chance of graduating than native students.”

Shifting the narrative

Because the story is so thin, we possibly mirror a story back to students that perpetuates negative self-concept. However, if we complicate our understanding of community college students by learning to see their strengths, we’d gain a better understanding of the bigger picture of higher education and we will all benefit.

To do this, we might take a page from the equity-minded instruction that is informing more and more classrooms: Learning to recognize, call out and amplify the strengths and assets of all students. This shifts the narrative, allowing more students, as well as more instructors, to reframe the lens with which teaching and learning take place.

If we transformed how we talk and think about community college students, we can recognize a different narrative. We might listen to Dr. Tara J. Yosso, who lays out six facets of cultural wealth: aspirational, navigational, social, linguistic, familial and resistant capital. In flipping the narrative, familial capital is a notion worth expanding on–it’s important to note in many communities of lower income, family can be defined beyond the traditional sense, what some call “fictive kin.” This is particularly interesting when it comes to community college students–many of them come to the campus with the community aspect of their identity already intact, already a deep part of who they are. And yet, discussions tend to focus on the individual and not the communal.

Additionally, resistant capital is deeply relevant here: “It is the inherited foundation and historical legacy of communities of colors and marginalized groups in resisting inequality and pursuing equal rights. This includes embracing a resistance to stereotypes that are not authentic to your sense of self.” Maybe community college students wouldn’t feel so out of their element on a four-year campus if they knew the institutions that serve them knew how to identify these kinds of wealth and the power of resistant and familial capital.

Identify and leverage strengthens

If we complicated the narrative, we could learn to identify and tap into the strengths these students already possess before they step foot on a four-year campus. Perhaps their “road-tested” skills have more relevance in the learning process than many of us currently know how to identify. Of course, we’re speaking in broad generalizations here: each individual has their own journey, their own challenges and strengths, but we’re adding negatively to the story of community college students when we simply focus on the gaps and underpreparedness.

To thicken the narrative requires a thoughtfulness that goes beyond the surface narrative of what we think we know about community college students and their choices and challenges. Many students choose a two-year school because it is less expensive, because the institution offers night or weekend classes, because the student can hold a job, offer elder or child care, AND take classes toward a degree–perhaps their life circumstances are better understood and accommodated.

Holding two truths about these students moves away from the hierarchy of what we think we know about college and the students pursuing a degree. These students have much to offer the four-year institutions where they attend; we have to learn to recognize the fullness of what they bring so that these students can bloom. As a result, the college itself benefits from the contributions of a student that is made welcome and valued. Students get to be thick in their experiences rather than thin.

About the Author

Charlotte Gullick
Charlotte Gullick is a former department chair at Austin Community College (Texas) and is currently program manager at Vassar College (New York) for its Exploring Transfer Together Initiative funded by the ECMC Foundation.
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