Discovering the Strength of Connections: The Community Within Community College
By Guest Contributor Jacqueline Pecker
Jackie is a graduate of Palm Beach State College with an Associate of Arts. She is a member of the the 2023 All-USA Academic Team, Coca-Cola Leaders of Promise Scholar, and TEK Productions Scholar. At PBSC, she received the 2022 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Leadership Award in the student category.
“Okay, nothing wrong with saving a little money!” I have never understood that sentiment when answering the unavoidable question from strangers: “Where are you going to school?” It is never “Congratulations!” or “You made the right choice!” when they find out that I attend a community college. This subtle condescendence, however, has never shaken my view of the wealth of opportunities that I have discovered at Palm Beach State College.
After graduating high school, I realized that the childhood game of “follow the leader” had never ended. Students in my graduating class knew the rules:
- You graduate high school.
- You go straight to a four-year university.
Since “follow the leader” was all I knew, I settled on the path to university. I was following the footsteps laid ahead of me. I had successfully transitioned to a university after graduation. But at the start of my second semester, I ended up being an exception to the rules. I struggled with a debilitating mental health battle that forced me to withdraw.
With only one semester completed and still recovering from this hardship, getting back into college felt like starting over. The big dreams I once had of working at NBC Studios in New York City seemed to fade. Thanks to my recovery in therapy, however, I was able to bridge a connection to the community college. I can now confidently say: “I made the right choice.”
The transitional nature of community college fittingly replicated my situation at the time in the most beneficial way. I, myself, was in a transitional period – one in which I valued the solace I found in the people who surrounded me. The “community” in community college is meant to refer to the locality of the institution. However, in my experiences at PBSC, I have come to explore the idea of “community” from a new angle. While the common association with two-year schools is a place to earn college credits and graduate, there is a powerful community under the veil – one whose members are bonded by a shared desire for the same self-growth that I was seeking.
This close-knit community manifests itself in a variety of identities, including people like me, who are looking to return to an educational environment after a loss of direction; parents, who are studying to create a better life for their children; and individuals who have emigrated from other countries in search of an education. I have encountered each of these identities, among more, through the various organizations I have joined at my community college. All have embodied the underlying meaning of “community” that I wish more could see.
Returning to the college environment after a year was a culture shock. However, a supportive environment of students and faculty members genuinely wanted to see me succeed. They welcomed me and enabled me to push my past aside. I have now come to know this driving force as my own community. On my first day as a student assistant at my college’s tutoring center, a fellow student worker greeted me and gave me a narrated tour of my campus. As we walked, she detailed organizations such as the Honors College and Phi Theta Kappa, and how they helped her on her path to a university. While to some this little tour may be customary, I knew that it was something more.
Even at this time when everything was foreign to me, I understood the reason she took the time to show me around and tell me about her experiences. She wanted me to succeed here, too. This simple tour exemplifies the idea of “community” that I proudly associate with community college. I realize with each of the many humble interactions with fellow students like this one, I was being lifted, step by step, out of my tribulation that once seemed permanent. Intimate connections like these are the cornerstone of the undeniable value community colleges provide.
My community college education has not only given me the platform to rebuild myself socially, but it also helped me find a new identity as a leader. It is because of the collaboration with this community that I am now in a position to lead. While the word “leader” often implies a professional position, community college portrays an entirely different meaning. As a part of a diverse community of scholars with different starting points, I have learned that together, our differences propel us forward.
We lead each other with our strengths that seamlessly blend together, for the common goal of self-development. This has been my main inspiration to lead. These close connections I have made at community college have become the foundation for the leadership skills. I now utilize these skills to give back to this community that helped me reclaim myself from adversity. As a result, my newfound leadership style is one of servitude. I foster a further sense of community through organizations I am a part of, like PTK and the Honors College.
As my graduation nears, I often picture myself at the first PTK event I led as Chapter President. The educational and social foundations I received at Palm Beach State College have allowed me to channel my passion for creativity in my first true leadership experience – establishing the “Let’s Press Paws (Pause) with PTK” initiative. This monthly series of therapeutic events allows students to experience the same sense of community that has marked my community college experience.
Although it now seems a long way from my rocky start, I can proudly look back on this event. It is a testament to everything that my community college education has afforded me. At our first art-themed event, I witnessed students who had never met collaborating with each other. It was for the greater purpose of mental health awareness – a fight that I was once standing on the sidelines for.
Through the value of a close-knit college community, I have discovered my true identity as a leader. Now mental health awareness is now a fight that I can stand front and center in. The days when I questioned if I would ever return to school are still vivid in my mind. The disapproving looks of those who questioned my educational path are too. However, the experiences I gained as a community college student have an irreplaceable power that has lifted me above them all.