Creating community college advocates


It’s on us. As leaders in the space of community colleges, we need to ask the question — Why is community college a smart choice?

We know that community colleges are the unsung heroes of higher education. We know they are affordable, accessible, quality institutions that provide a launchpad to college and career, but we need students to think about it, articulate it and, eventually, advocate for our colleges. Too often, education feels transactional, but we know that transformation happens on our campuses and in our classrooms. It’s on us to ask students to think about why.

At Phi Theta Kappa, we are doing the work of student advocacy and what we can do to teach the principles of advocacy and then help students begin to apply that advocacy to community colleges. For us, the first step was asking the question. As part of this work, Phi Theta Kappa (PTK) recognizes a graduating member who best expresses the value of a community college education through an essay. This recognition is known as the Founders Medal Award and the contest is launched on PTK’s Founders Day (November 18).

This article is part of a regular series contributed by Phi Theta Kappa, an affiliated council of the American Association of Community Colleges.

Technically, PTK’s Founder’s Day is not the day we were founded, but rather the day we were found by the then American Association of Junior Colleges (now the American Association of Community Colleges), who in 1929 accepted our petition to be recognized as the official standard for community college honor societies across the nation. As a result, the AAJC board of directors called for all member colleges to establish a PTK chapter, and boom, just like that, PTK grew from a handful of chapters in the Midwest to the national organization we are today.

Founders Medal Award

Since that time, much in America has changed and continues to change. We have gone through wars, economic expansions (and collapses), technology booms and pandemics — but the purpose and ideals of community colleges and Phi Theta Kappa remain unwavering. Community colleges have continued the hard work of providing opportunity for all, creating America’s workforce and contributing credit to nearly half of all bachelor’s degrees awarded in the United States. Over that same time, PTK has worked alongside community colleges — recognizing academic excellence and propelling students forward personally, professionally, academically and socially.

The Founders Medal Award is one of our most popular scholarship competitions, with thousands of entries annually. This year’s award winner, Tam Ho, is a student at Tarrant County College in Texas.

The Founders Medal Award winner is kept secret and is revealed through a special presentation at the winner’s college. This year’s medal and scholarship presentation took place April 30 in the company of Tam’s biggest supporters — family, friends, faculty and staff, community members, peers and fellow PTK members.

She begins her essay by saying, “Community college is a smart choice for me.” Tam is thankful and proud of her experience at Tarrant and the “student life, resources and friendships” they provide. Tam’s experience is not unique — nearly all community colleges invest heavily in student organizations like Phi Theta Kappa to provide ways for students to engage more deeply with the college, faculty and each other — and, ultimately, succeed at higher rates.

However, our surveys show that nearly 70% of members are unaware that these types of co-curricular “student life” experiences exist at community colleges. Too often, the public has the same lack of awareness and views two-year schools as transactional places to get their “stuff ” — their credits and courses. Tam is working in her community to change all that.

Tam Ho, a student at Tarrant County College in Texas, has been named the 2024 Phi Theta Kappa Founders Medal Award recipient. (Photo: PTK)

As an immigrant and non-native English speaker, things were not easy for Tam; but they will certainly be easier for the students who come behind her because Tam is working in her own community to share her experiences and the rich learning, opportunities, and growth that took place for her at Tarrant. 

Her essay also gets directly to the heart of the most important core asset of a community college — the faculty. Show me a successful student and you will find a dedicated faculty and staff member close by. Tam writes, “Every professor and every class I have attended has taught me a new lesson. In my experience, community college professors always motivate their students to be successful in class and outside of class too. They are willing to do their best to help us graduate and continue our education.”

As students apply for the PTK Founders Medal, they are forced to reflect on the opportunities found at their colleges. Trust me — choosing a winner is not easy, but it is our hope that this award and exercise will help generate the community college advocates we need and deserve. I hope you will take time to read her essay.

About the Author

Lynn Tincher-Ladner
Dr. Lynn Tincher-Ladner is president and CEO of the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society, the international honor society of two-year colleges. She also serves on the AACC board of directors. Follow her on Twitter @tincherladner
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