By Troy Hudson
At a small community college like SMCC where only about 6,000 students attend class, it might seem like we see the same faces every day, and we probably do. Walking to class, standing in line at the Seawolves Café, or even relaxing on Willard Beach in summer, we’re all likely to cross paths sooner or later. But despite all this proximity, how well do we really know our fellow students?
Unlike the more homogenous populations at an Ivy League school or a dedicated art or technical school, there’s not much we can take for granted about our fellow students, because the reasons for attending a community college are so diverse. You could be sitting next to a first-generation American here on scholarship to acquire a nursing degree, or that same person might just be locking in some cheap general-education credits before heading off to finish her education at Yale. She might be a single mother who’s been working toward a degree for years, or she might be new to college and debt-averse, just dipping a toe in the academic waters.
In its 71-year history, SMCC has always provided a practical approach to education, initially offering vocational training before expanding its scope to include an Associate in Applied Science in the 1960s, and finally an Associate in Arts degree by 1998. While Liberal Studies now account for the majority of majors at SMCC, the trades are still going strong, with the share of students majoring in a trade rising from 35 to 38 percent between 2009 and 2013. Low tuition and an emphasis on the trades have always been hallmarks of the College, attracting students from many backgrounds seeking an inexpensive way to begin (or finish) an education.
Unsurprisingly, SMCC students are overwhelmingly from Maine: Only 6 percent come from other states or foreign countries. The sheer accessibility and attainability of SMCC have attracted a large number of part-time commuters, who currently represent 58 percent of the student body. Most of these students live in Cumberland County, although the College does serve students from every county in Maine.
But just because most of us call Maine home doesn’t mean we’re typical of the state. SMCC, like the greater Portland area, is quite a bit more diverse than the rest of the region. Minority students currently make up about 17 percent of the student body, whereas Maine as a whole is 95 percent white. And the minority population at SMCC is growing rapidly. The number has already grown by more than half since 2011, and national trends suggest that will continue to be the case well into the future.
In 2014, the National Center for Education Statistics reported that, for the first time, the total percentage of minority students was larger than the percentage of whites in public grade-school classrooms. The shift is already underway, and our student body is living proof of that. Although Maine is behind the curve in terms of ethnic diversity, SMCC is about the most diverse place in the state.
It is usually easy to see ethnic diversity when it is present, but one thing that can’t be appreciated at a glance is family background. SMCC students are largely first-generation students (61 percent), meaning that their parents do not have a college degree and that they may be the first members of their family to attend college. This number is much higher than the national average of 30 percent.
While attending college, especially as a freshman, is a challenging time for all students, being a first-generation degree-seeker carries with it a unique set of difficulties. When a first-generation student feels overwhelmed or has concerns about a professor or class, they typically can’t draw on the experience of parents or other family members. These students may also face an unhealthy amount of pressure to succeed, which can actually be detrimental to academic success. It can be scary and stressful to be the first of your family to embark on such a huge journey, but it is also an admirable and courageous decision. Knowing that over half of the students around us are in that position should inspire appreciation for the remarkable courage of our student body.
And the student population is indeed achieving remarkable success. Between 2009 and 2013, transfer-out rates for first-time, full-time students increased from 17 to 21 percent. And in a very heartening statistic, more than 94 percent of SMCC students enter the workforce or transfer to another school within nine months of graduation.
College represents many things to each of us. It can be a place to build friendships, discover hidden talents and interests, or even shine a little light on the mysteries of the universe. Ultimately, it’s about preparing ourselves for what comes next. We all bring something different to our time at SMCC, and our school is stronger for that spectrum of experience. As different as our backgrounds and goals might be, we have at least this in common: We believe the future can be better than today, so we work toward making that vision a reality. Each of us can take pride in being a member of such a vibrant community.