Editor’s Note: This post was written and submitted by Won Joon Kang, International Vice President for Division 1.
At Kenyon College in 2005, David Foster Wallace began his commencement speech by stating the following:
There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”
He continues by discerning the knowledge one expects to gain from a college education and the awareness of the self that grows in tandem. This small parable that served as a final assignment for my junior year English class remains a monolith in my psyche. What does it mean to understand the water around oneself?
Schooling often felt militaristic. Wake up on time, go do what is expected, continue, and repeat. High school graduation marked the end of routine, and complete freedom felt liberating but also terrifying.
I spent a year off after high school working at my debate and public speaking academy. Seeing students understand various concepts was inspiring, but after a while, it too became a routine — motioning the same movements every day. I wondered if I was again swimming without questioning the water I found myself in.
Enrolling at Bergen Community College after a year of no formal education made me feel like I was submerging myself in a stream that I knew the limits of. I was going to be the older fish for once. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Attending classes at Bergen gave me something I never could’ve found anywhere else: a chance to learn and reflect at the same time. High school inundated me with class after class after class, with no moment to sit and think about what had just passed. My time at community college showed me that there are no bounds to the value of a college education. Each class honored my time, and every free moment after class offered chance for self-reflection.
There is more to community college than achieving credits for a degree — it’s your chance to understand your water. The opportunity to think about discussions regarding the functions of the body from biology, familial situations from meeting new people, and changes happening to our world from club meetings all equate to an amalgam of looking at yourself and subverting the idea that you are the older fish in the stream.
The biggest gift that community college has presented to me has been giving me a new way of thinking. Thinking more before speaking on something, reading to learn for pleasure, and finding my voice by reflecting on big mistakes.
During my year off after high school, I used to daydream about being a time traveler. I wanted to go back into the past and change every mistake I ever made. I’m sure this fantasy is shared by anyone who has ever done anything remotely wrong. However, now I know that all my mistakes were necessary to understand my water.
Reflecting on it all now, I could not be more grateful for making big mistakes and having the chance to learn from them. I know that I can be better now for others in my community, at Bergen, and in Phi Theta Kappa.
I used to be afraid to tell people that I was attending community college. It felt like the stigma of community college resonated to all. It’s easy to get lost in the words of others. However, don’t forget the power of your own voice.
Teaching public speaking and debate, I felt that I knew my voice already. Again, I was wrong. All those who belittle community college have not attended a single class at a community college. Otherwise, they would know the opportunity it presents.
The stereotype of the community college student holds no ounce of truth. Transfer students are the brightest, most self-aware, and eager people on any campus. Statistics can back it up, but holding a conversation with anyone who is transfer-ready is enough to be certain of this empirical truth.
All community college students share a commonality among themselves that four-year institutions seem to ignore: they know their water. Their self-actualization against the grain of stigma and diligence despite their circumstances is enough to show that they are capable of anything and everything.
Transfer- and workforce-ready students can be found roaming the hallways, writing notes in classrooms, and sharing laughs in the walls of community colleges nationwide. They are ready to embark on their next steps. Four-year institutions are slowly beginning to realize that everything that comprises a community college student is inherently valuable.
The dedication of students like Phi Theta Kappans has helped to subvert the stigma that has been so tightly held by others. As more schools begin to realize the value of community college students, I hope they realize swimming upstream has become second nature to many of us.
This is our water.
This is our water.
Continue to break expectations, rile up good trouble, and be your greatest self. Be a proud community college student — say it a little prouder. Because there’s no one else like us. Because there will be no one else like you.