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A Love Letter

Hi, this is Dan Baum, host of Redefine U. Thanks for joining us as we continue our series exploring how we redefine in the face of a pandemic.

After a brief break, we're taking a further departure from our usual format. This is also a preview of what to expect in our off season. Over the summer, we’ll be asking faculty to read excerpts from their own original writings that enlighten and inspire. We’ll then have a brief conversation about what inspired them, what they learned and of course, how they’ve redefined themselves.

To kick us off, I want to welcome Dr. Candice Mayhill, associate professor of English here at AACC. Dr. Mayhill recently wrote a powerful blog post — one she refers to as a love letter — that we’ve asked her to share with us.

Candice: I’m Candice Mayhill and this is “My Big Fat Community College: A love letter to my community and its college.”

Let’s face it. The real love story of My Big Fat Greek Wedding isn’t that between Toula and her handsome history teacher; it’s between Toula and her community college. Feeling fed up with her life and desiring change, where does our heroine turn first? The community college. Before she sees the handsome guy, before she changes her hair, before she does what countless romantic comedies do to their female leads and gets a makeover, she finds a brochure for her local college: “Add to your life,” the bold type says as her sister swings the brochure towards the garbage can of the family restaurant.

There we are. Add to your life. “Redefine yourself,” as my community college says.

She sits outside of the family restaurant, trapped in a windy alley thinking, “I wish I had a different life. I wish I were braver.”

It’s time, people. It’s time to be brave. We’re in Toula’s windy alley.

If you’re anything like me, part of your quarantine time is taken up by binge watching every new show you can find, quickly followed by watching every movie you ever loved on repeat. Rewatching My Big Fat Greek Wedding, I fell in love with the narrative.

Toula tells her father she wants to head to college to take computer classes. No, she doesn’t. She wants to head to college for a change. She wants to be the person she has always wanted to be. She wants to explore without leaving home. Toula gets community; she is part of one and wants to be part of one, but she wants to be more.

The community college is there for that.

This is a love letter to the community college. Admittedly, I’m biased. I’m a tenured associate professor who loves her job and her students. I’ve been teaching at the community college, first as an adjunct professor, then as a full-time professor, for thirteen years. I teach English. I love good and bad books and good and bad students. I don’t think “bad” actually exists for either. I think every book deserves to be read and every student deserves access to an education.

I think I’m lucky to be where I am right now.

At this particular moment, when we’re under a stay at home order because of the threat of coronavirus, I am proud to be where I am, conducting my classes from home, meeting my students online, on the phone, over email, and, in some cases, through the blessing of the USPS. This is where we are. Home.

Home is the community college.

When students at my community college were forced off campus for courses, my colleagues stepped up. When students were forced out of work, my colleagues stepped up. When we thought that students might be stressed out by a traditional grading scale and needed other options, we stepped up. When my college thought faculty needed adequate time to prepare courses and train for online teaching, my college stepped up; we closed for three weeks to give faculty time for the pivot. When my college worried about students not having access to food, rent money, counseling, substance abuse help, domestic help, technology, books, internet access, or just someone to talk to, my college stepped up. When my college saw a shortage of PPE, they donated every blessed extra resource we had to the local hospital. While I watched professors at other colleges scramble to figure out Zoom and Teams and Skype and Big Blue Button, I watched my college roll out training and communication and support.

There we are: support.

Let’s talk about how the community college is supporting you right now.

My students are your essential workers. Some of them have graduated from the college and pursued careers in government and health care. They are making their way to work every damned day that I’m able to sit home talking about good writing with my students. They’re taking care of the sick; they’re letting the country run while I am able to stay safe at home. My current students are your essential workers in education. They’ve graduated from the community college pursuing degrees in education and have come back to the classroom to give back or they are teachers in the current system who return to us to keep their credentials up to date. They’re running their classrooms at home while taking care of their own kids and taking our classes because they love to learn. My students are your essential workers bringing you your curbside pick-up from the grocery store, the pharmacy, your favorite restaurant, your liquor store; they are your gig workers bringing you your orders so that you can stay home. My students are your current and former service members working on their degrees when they can.

My students are also out of work, in some cases. Some of them looking at transfer in the Fall are left disappointed, not knowing if they should move in the Fall. Some of them are high school students getting a jump on their college careers by taking a few classes with us. Some of them are parents working through their education while taking care of kids. Some of them are here because they weren’t quite sure where to go yet. Some of them are here because it makes sense to do your first two years of general education closer to home. Some of them are here because they love books and wanted to read more. All of them are here because they made a choice.

Whoever they are, they are stepping up to that choice.

The community college is your support. The students are there for you, doing the work that needs to be done, in the classroom, in virtual spaces, in your community, in your government, in your businesses.

I spend most of my days lately on the computer, working with my students and colleagues how I can. When I need to get out, I go to campus. I walk. I look at the flowers and stare, maybe a little forlornly, at the signs indicating that all buildings are closed to access. We’re going to be online through the summer. Our administrators tell us it’s also distance education for us in the fall, at least until October. My plans for my students aren’t on hold: we still have authors to encounter, papers to write, research to be done, conversations to be had. My colleagues still have formulas to solve, history to explore, laws to commit to memory, concepts to understand, entire galaxies to name and number. Our plans are not on hold. We’re proposing new courses to meet current demands, revising old ones to meet new formats. We’re never on hold.

Your plans aren’t on hold either. Your education isn’t on hold. What better time do you have than the present to think about participating in your community and in your community college?

Want personal enrichment classes? Music lessons? Fitness classes? Creative Writing? We’ve got those. Want to spend your stay at home time learning a foreign language? We’ve got that, too. Want to get ahead on your college credits in a less expensive way than heading away to college quite yet? We’ve got that, too. Are you out of work? We can also help with that. Decided that this crisis inspired you to pursue a career in nursing? In skilled trades? In public health? In education? In business management? In journalism? In political science? In music? We’ve got all that.

You’re considering making a choice. You’re at home. You feel like your options are limited. They aren’t. The community college is open for you and open to you. The college can help you; you can also help the college and the community. Enroll. Be a part of your community.

Every student who has stepped into my classroom has made that choice, the same choice Toula makes in My Big Fat Greek Wedding: be brave and add to your life. It doesn’t matter what class you came here for. What matters is that you make the choice to come and then you keep coming, class after class, log in after log in, day after day, stepping up. What matters is that you felt that urge to do something and harnessed it by stepping into the community that’s here for you, has always been here for you, and will keep being here for you and your family.

This is a love letter to Toula and to the community college. This is a love letter to my colleagues, carrying the virtual load of being both a college and a community resource. This is a love letter to my students; I see you putting shoulder to the wheel, and I respect you so much for it. This is a love letter to my community, sitting behind closed doors, despite their own financial losses, despite their own disappointments, despite everything, to protect the most vulnerable among us. This is a love letter to the idea of community, that all of us are stronger than one of us, that we redefine ourselves every day we make choices to better ourselves for the sake of something larger.

This moment, right here and now, is your chance to redefine yourself as a member of that community, to redefine what community even means. Toula’s father would give us a Greek lesson about it: you know, the word community comes from the Greek word koinonia, which means joint participation or a communion or fellowship. Koinonia, communitas, community: there you go.

For me, I see the community college as the beating heart of human excellence in the center of my world. It is, as the ancient Greeks defined and philosophized arete, excellence, knowledge, virtue, the pursuit of happiness, the very best of what makes us who we are. Add it to your life.

Dan: Hi, Candice. How are you doing?

Candice: I'm good, Dan. How are you?

Dan: Good. How are you holding up during this pandemic?

Candice: Keeping on, keeping on. A lot of time behind the computer screen.

Dan: I get that. Thanks for taking the time to join us. So, I want to start with what inspired you to write this piece?

Candice: I think a lot of it is that we all have different responses to crisis. So, a lot of us are baking way, way, way, way, way too much bread. Some of us stockpiled enough toilet paper to last until 2021. Some people are making all these super cool color-coded activity charts. I'm not one of those people. Some of us are hiding under the covers watching way too much Netflix. And some of us are on this cycle that's all the above.

And for me, I write when I'm faced with some kind of crisis. And looking at my students and my colleagues facing this big, giant challenge of what do we do when we're faced with a stay at home order? How do we keep education going? It just really inspired me to sit down and just write something, especially when I could take a big step back from my place where I was hiding under the table and panicking and take a look at this is what the community college does every single day, crisis or not. We adapt. We look at what students actually need from us. We try to provide what they need, and we just step up. And that idea of community really fascinates me. So how we define what community means, and I really just wanted to explore that and wanted to express to my community members just how much I love what I do and how much I love the college and love my students and love my colleagues.

Dan: That's so awesome. What did you learn through the process either about yourself or others or even the world?

Candice: I think a lot of it is about kind of redefinition. And I think it's important that we redefine ourselves every day. And I did need a reminder about that. In an experience like this, the stay at home order, social responsibility, what havoc this virus is kind of wreaking on the world on so many levels, it really does force anyone to take stock and to reevaluate and to ask what we can contribute. I'm an English professor, so really all I have to contribute is a lot of words and a lot of time. But I really want people to have both of those things. So I think it made me kind of think about what is it that I can do to contribute.

And for me, when I have any kind of really powerful feeling, it's important to harness it and to do something with it, which is why I wanted to teach English and teach writing in the first place. So it really did, I guess, kind of remind me of why it is that I do what I do. And sometimes redefinition is asking you to take a step back and think about who you are and why you picked the vocation that you did.

When I was a little kid, all I ever wanted to do was to be a writer. And so people would ask, what do you want to be when you grow up? I want to be a writer. And my poor parents were like, oh my God, please pick a career. That's not a thing. Please pick something else. But it did, it kind of made me think about taking time to do the things that are what I really wanted to do when I was little.

Dan: Well, you mentioned redefining, which is what we're all about. So how is this whole experience redefining you?

Candice: I think it's like pushing a giant reset button for everybody to think about, from at least for education, of what are the most important things that I need my students to learn over the course of the semester? And kind of cutting out the extraneous stuff that maybe was in curriculum that didn't need to be there. And I think the same thing's true for lots of aspects of life. What are the things that are really important to us? It's connections with other people, which is, I think what we're all missing the most, and to try to figure out ways to establish new connections or reforge old connections to make something that's workable. So, for me, this entire experience is making me take a big restock of myself and what it is that I find important.

Dan: So what do you find to be most important at this time for you?

Candice: Connection and trying to figure out how to connect, whether it's getting online and establishing online community, which I think is something that we've all been kind of working towards. And I spend probably way too much time online, even when we're not a stay at home order, of how do reach out to people to make sure they're okay? What can you do to brighten up somebody's day a little bit? How do you write something that people want to read? And how do you make sure that they read it? How do you write a personal letter to somebody and send it to them and make sure that they get and that they can appreciate it?

So I think it is about, it's connection for me. And how do you develop a community when you can't physically be in the same space or at least not in the same space six feet closer?

Dan: Well, a lot of times writing is about connection. So how do you hope this piece will impact others?

Candice: I hope it lets my students and my colleagues know that the work that they're doing is seen and appreciated. I feel like it's easy to get frustrated when you think you're just sending your work, whether it's the papers that you're writing or the test that you're taking, or for my colleagues, the courses that you're doing, that you're just kind of sending stuff into the void. So I want people to know that what they're doing is seen.

I hope it lets people know that the work that they're doing is not just important work, that right now it's the most important work that you're doing, that you're connecting with other people and that it inspires people to think of community college in a different way that we're not just this college that the community happens to have sitting on College Parkway, that we're the college behind the community, the one that's providing for the community in a lot of ways. And that we're the college who defines what the community is and where the community can go.

I guess I just keep thinking of all of us sitting at home behind their computers and our phones, getting frustrated and feeling lonely and just working and working and working without having any sense of feedback. And I think there's a really good sense of empowerment that comes from getting that feedback from belonging and letting people know that belonging isn't just tied to physical space. And I want people to really experience that belonging.

And if somebody hasn't joined us yet at the college, I want people to know that we've made a space for you. We're waiting for you, that we want you to join us, and we want you to enroll.

Dan: You said that your contribution is words, but words reflect thoughts and insights. And I've found yours very powerful. It's really uplifting. So thank you so much for sharing that.

Candice: Thank you.

Dan: Thank you again for taking the time to join us today. Stay safe and be well.

Candice: Yes, you too.


Redefine U is a production of Anne Arundel Community College. Our Executive Producer is Allison Baumbusch, our producer is Jeremiah Prevatte, and our Writer Amy Carr-Willard. Others who helped with this podcast include Amanda Behrens, Angie Hamlet, Ben Pierce, and Alicia Renehan.

Special thanks to Dr. Candice Mayhill.

Find show notes, how to subscribe, and other extras on our website I’m your Host and Creator of this podcast, Dan Baum. Thanks for listening.


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