The ideas expressed in this column do not necessarily represent those of The New Courier.

Apathy and the Student

by Dennis Austin

Oct. 15, 2019

Among the hundreds of students who walk through this college, you will find those who are creative, artistic, expressive, and scholarly. Motivated by their respective career prospects and/or academic goals, these students will undoubtedly take advantage of the opportunities this campus provides. While GCC may not be able to boast a plethora of resources comparable to its peer institutions, we are not completely lacking. However, there exists a significant population at this college in which students are not engaged in the classroom or outside of it. I have been intrigued at this phenomenon since arriving in January 2018, and as I prepare to depart for greener pastures elsewhere, I am somewhat disappointed at this reality. Growing up in an impoverished Black neighborhood, education symbolized opportunity and was pushed heavily onto me and my siblings. Being the rebel I am I dropped out of high school, much to my mother’s dismay. Prior to this occurrence I was forced to attend our local community college in downtown Chicago and failed…terribly. Now I must clarify. I was participating in class and quickly became known as a vocal student eager to engage with our instructor and the content discussed. Fortunately, that tendency never left me. What became a problem was my criminal procrastination in which assignments were not done or if by some divine intervention, were completed at the last minute. After my early academic years, much of which were spent daydreaming and being bored, I found myself “floating” in a sense. A move to Florida, followed by time spent in politics gave me a sense of where I wanted to be in life, particularly given the hardships I experienced during that brief period.

Eventually I found myself here in Batavia, eager to obtain an education but more so, make up for lost time. I have enjoyed my time interacting with professors, seeking additional academic opportunities while also immersing myself into various initiatives on campus. While I am surrounded by students who share similar sentiments and experiences, we often remark that we feel as if we are on island surrounded by other students who seem to be disinterested completely and would much rather seclude themselves in their cliques or go solo rather than embrace what’s available. A question that’s been on my mind is how do we draw in those students?  Well there are a variety of reasons we don’t. Students in my social circle have often told me their battles with mental health and the toll it takes on them to perform as a student. There are the students who work multiple jobs and thus have no time to get involved. A recent issue that arose at our campus is the rising number of students who are also caretakers, caring for relatives and in some cases, their children as well. Juggling multiple responsibilities can be difficult as one begins to prioritize what’s important. Is it more important to study for a math exam or buy groceries for your family when coming home from work? Not an easy question to answer but I believe that another aspect that is often overlooked—or avoided entirely—is the attitude of students at this campus. Let me preface by saying this will not be a stereotype of students at community colleges. I am aware of thriving community college systems in California, Illinois, Florida, and elsewhere. The concern lies within what I see as a student body that doesn’t care about their academic potential.  The intellectual curiosity and vigor often seen in other students seems to be as dead as the VCR. As a former tutor I would encounter students who often complained about completing two or five page assignments.

With all due respect, stop whining. I have seen friends at other community colleges and universities writing massive papers, and I am not in the least sympathetic. Too many students seem more concerned with uploading edited photos of themselves to Instagram or Snapchat streaks than with the responsibilities that are laid out in front of them. And then they have the gall to complain about their professor. Sorry. Not buying it. On some days it feels as if I have reverted back to high school. The bug of immaturity bites us all and for me it definitely did, but I was able to move past it.
As to why a high school dropout outperforms some of his classmates at GCC, the answer is easy. I can say without any shred of doubt that in terms of education, my mother was my greatest influence. Even at my lowest point, I could still read, write, speak eloquently, and read fervently. That was the result of many hours spent listening to Hooked on Phonics cassette tapes at two years old and her mandatory Saturday essays she would require me and my siblings to write. That’s why I have done so well. Yes, I missed a significant portion of time in the classroom, but I was equipped at a young age with the skills that instilled in me the foundation for success. Once you are blessed with that ability, it never leaves you. In our present times, students are not often exposed to an educational setting in which critical thought is encouraged. Many of the strategies I learned started when I was a small child, an important developmental period. Many don’t have this privilege. With budgets being slashed, this inevitably leads to a drop in quality of curriculum, instruction, and extracurricular opportunity. I will maintain that we are all responsible for our actions. You failed a test because you didn’t study? It’s your fault, but it can be for some students deeper than that.
If someone was never taught or given the proper tools to succeed in academia and beyond, they will fall by the wayside. I have seen it repeatedly growing up with my contemporaries. It’s not that the students do not care. It’s that they were not taught to care, either due to improper parenting, poor community relationships, lackadaisical educational opportunities or all of the above. Sometimes it is easy to analyze a situation with simple platitudes that make our adrenaline rise and blood boil but it does nothing in terms of offering answers to complex solutions. It is important to note that many of us peak at certain points in our life. In the midst of whatever teenage drama I was experiencing years ago, there was strong potential. Many people told me I had potential but until I chose to act, my potential lay dormant. Instead of asking “how” we bring students into the fold, the question should be does this institution provide the adequate resources in not just attracting but retaining? It’s no surprise that GCC is in the midst of great change however there are still many changes to be made. A rural environment with very little surrounding the campus does affect student morale and is a roadblock in students, particularly those who commute, in being active on campus. Geography plays a role as well. Santa Monica College in California has an active student body. Yes, there exists a segment of students who could not care less about the ongoing campus activities but they are outweighed by a large number of students who are enthusiastic about participating with their respective clubs and organizations. These opportunities at Santa Monica and elsewhere are made possible given their geographic location. These institutions are normally in urban areas where there is a greater number of resources and reliable transportation. Without these key necessities, it should be no surprise that students will often have a sense of alienation towards our college. These matters must be addressed if GCC is to truly develop into a thriving campus community.
Student apathy exists anywhere. Harvard, Yale, University of Illinois, Michigan, Stanford, and even GCC, are fighting a daily battle: winning over students who could give less than a damn about what happens. What makes our job difficult is three-fold: the working parent whose time can’t be fully given to academics, the student who is unable to fully embrace our campus due to limitations—transportation, etc. Then there is the student who hates being here. How do we solve this problem? I’m not so sure in terms of the first two issues, but as it relates to the student with an indifferent and lazy attitude towards academics my feelings are brief but valid. Stop making excuses, do your work, and succeed. Anything else is baloney.