My first day of kindergarten, my mother walked me three blocks to school, P.S. 1 in New York City. I was terrified of school, but I got through the first day. The next day, she said, “Have a great day,” and sent me to walk alone. I was stunned! But after the first week, that walk was second nature to me.
My father died when I was five, which forced me to be more independent. I’ve relied on those lessons of independence, as well as the meaning of connection, throughout my life. My four siblings, and especially my two sisters, helped provide me with confidence, because we were so connected.
As we begin a new fall semester, it reminds me of my own beginnings as a college student. When I went to UC Berkeley, I left my family, friends and everything familiar to me. It takes courage and initiative to do that, but the rewards can be enormous. I’ve had a wonderful life in education, including working in the U.S. Department of Education in Washington, D.C. and today, serving as the president of a great college.
Many of our students are uncertain and scared when they arrive. I want to say to each one, “Being afraid is natural. But you should feel good that you’ve come this far, to this college. Because we are creating for you the most nurturing, supportive institution of higher learning that we can. It’s a place where you can find yourself.” I want them to know that what they learn from each person they meet, whether it’s a professor, classmate or groundskeeper, can be a source of inspiration and connection. That interaction may take them places they could scarcely dream.
Relationships and connections have changed since my youth. In the groundbreaking book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community1 by Harvard Professor Robert D. Putnam, the author showed that, during the last 50 years, Americans have become increasingly disconnected from their own community, and he wrote about how we can reconnect. Connection for students at community colleges is so important, but sometimes elusive. I believe social media can help build connection, but face-to-face is still essential.
Have we lost meaningful connection? Could that be part of the tragedy of sexual assault - that people who perhaps have had only damaged connections in childhood then cause such terrible harm to others? Recently we have had to face the fact that sexual assault can happen even at SRJC, and to address how to keep our community safe while connected.
Actually, I think trusted connections among faculty, staff and students are one part of what we need to make our community safer. The more people we know, in our classes and outside of them, the more we will be connected. And the more connected we are to friends and colleagues who can walk with us to the bathroom, to our cars, to the bus stop, the more protection we will have. Of course, there are many other important things that SRJC must and will do to make important progress in SRJC safety, from improving campus lighting to providing educational forums.
Author Anaïs Nin wrote, “Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.”2 Whether we are SRJC students or employees, we each have the chance to be courageous: to try something difficult or scary, speak up when it would be easier not to, dream when we might be disappointed. I wish us all a year when we have that courage, watching our lives and hearts expand to match our dreams.
1 Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000).
2 Anaïs Nin, The Diary of Anaïs Nin, volume 3, 1939-1944 (Mariner Books, 1971)