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Honor their desperation

I once knew a young man who was a student at a community college.

He was hard working, determined and took his studies seriously. He was a private person, not seeming to want to share much conversation other than what was necessary for his classes.

As I built a relationship with him, I slowly discovered that, due to complicated personal issues, he was homeless.

I was amazed at his resourcefulness. He was living in a tent in a wooded area not far from campus. Even though he didn’t have a pillow to lay his head on at night and often worried about when he would eat next, he had a vision of what he wanted his life to be and he was diligently taking steps toward that goal.

He did not know what difficulties might arise, but got up each morning with a purpose for that day. And it was with this mind-set that he hoped to achieve his education which would lead to more security in his life.

His story reminded me of my mother’s journey. She was a single mother of eight children residing in a house that should have been condemned.

She was miserable living in the ‘system’ of government assistance and longed for dignity and independence. She believed for us children that we were created for a good purpose and often preached this mantra to us. The beauty was that as Mom spoke out hope for our lives she began believing she too could have this dream.

Mom started working two jobs, one as an assistant teacher for Head Start, and one in the laundry department of the local hospital. The work was exhausting and though she liked paying her own way, she longed for something better for her children and herself. She took a huge risk when she decided to register for classes at the local community college.

Mom used to get up at 4 a.m. to study. At 6 a.m., she would wake us to get ready for school, then she was off to her two jobs. In the evening she went to college classes. She always took one or two of us girls with her to school. We would wait in the hallway or walk around the campus of the school until her classes were finished before making the 18-mile trip back to our home.

When the hallways were cold, often professors would allow us girls to sit in their classroom.

When Mom’s head started to bob from exhaustion, I remember trying to take notes for her so she wouldn’t miss any of the lecture.

Mom never had a reliable car. When the heater didn’t work, we would bundle ourselves up in quilts and put extra pairs of socks on to stay warm. I remember one of her classmates duct taped Plexiglas to a broken window to keep the weather out.

If her gas tank said empty, she would put the car in neutral and coast down the hills, praying all the way that we would get to our destination.

When she didn’t have a car, Mom and we girls would hitch-hike to town for the classes. She had made an agreement with the county sheriff that if she walked the mile to his office after classes, he would make his rounds out in the county and take us home.

Thinking back, what Mom was doing was truly the impossible. I don’t know if today I would have the courage or stamina to do the same.

And yet, her efforts paid off. She was able to earn her Bachelor’s degree and taught Special Education for many years. Because of her example and belief in good purpose for all, her children also went to college and have fulfilling lives. She has been an inspiration to many encouraging them to strive for better lives.

Today, we have many students who struggle with life circumstances that make the goal of education seem impossible. Whether it be food insecurity, homelessness, health issues or other family challenges these students are pushing through barriers every day.

These students are fighting to prove these seemingly insurmountable walls are a lie. They are grasping at the truth that they too were created for a good purpose. They are daily achieving remarkable milestones, even if it means simply making it to class that day.

This journey is extremely difficult and often confidence in the dream wavers. But, just like my mother and the young man I knew who lived in the tent, they have a vision for a better, more purpose filled life.

What if we took extra effort to have eyes to see the struggle and hearts to instill courage in these who are trying so hard? What if we took the risk to walk beside them through these difficulties? What if we could allow ourselves to become uncomfortable along with them?

We would then become the student in a greater education than the best colleges can offer, a student in learning how to be the type of people God always intended we would be.


Nora Swango Stanger, a Lawrence County native and Appalachian outreach coordinator for Sinclair Community College, can be reached at norastanger@gmail.com.