By L&T Columnist Rachel Coleman
July, the hottest, longest, brightest month of summer is winding down and educators, parents, grandparents and — it’s true — even students are ready for the start of another school year.
How do I know this?
From my office at Seward County Community College/Area Technical School, I watch a steady stream of new and returning students line up at the window of the registrar’s office. They want to finalize details about the classes they hope to complete. Some of them hail from the college’s Colvin Adult Learning Center, where they’ve worked hard to take a firmer grasp on the English language or complete high school diplomas that fell by the wayside earlier in life. A few international and out-of-state learners stayed on campus all summer long to earn more credits through the summer sessions and earn money for the coming year.
Traditional, fresh-from-high-school graduates have passed by my door as well. They, too, bring their unique life experiences with them. Some might come from towns so small, Liberal feels like a metropolis and the campus huge and intimidating. They’re so relieved to see a smiling face, they sometimes drift into my office to ask directions. Despite the uncertainties that might cloud their enthusiasm, it’s clear to me they are anxious to get started.
When I visited Liberal High School midweek, I was astonished to see a similar landscape. Students traipsed through the hallway to nail down final details in the enrollment process — and they looked happy, even when they also looked confused.
It felt good to escape the crushing heat and enter the air-conditioned space of the polished commons area at LHS, but the students weren’t there to cool down. They seemed openly eager to get back into the books and hallways and routine of academic life. “Summer is great,” say the teens I know, “but I’m ready for it to be over.” Some of them, at least, voice this opinion.
During a family vacation last week, I eavesdropped as my own adolescent son and daughters compared notes with their missionary-kid cousins. My brother’s children attend an international school in a large city in India. It’s much smaller than LHS, but it’s much bigger than homeschool.
Like my own children, they started their educational careers learning with their parents in homeschool classes held around kitchen tables, in the back yard, at their grandparents’ home. They learned in Liberal, Minneola, Charlotte, N.C., Japan and India. Field trips sometimes took place as the family traveled across the globe — the redwood forests on America’s West Coast, the city of London, national parks and world heritage landmarks.
This year, the family’s whirlwind tour to check in with supporters across the U.S. included college visits for my oldest nephew. The list of adjustments he will have to make as he enters the world of higher education two years from now is daunting. Beyond a two-year spell when he was a young child, he hasn’t lived in the U.S. at all. Summer tours don’t really count: The family slept in a different place every night of the first month they spent in country this summer.
“You should visit SCCC/ATS,” I told him. “We have a lot of international students, and the support system is awesome. Host families adopt students for the breaks when campus is closed and the students can’t go back to their home countries.” In fact, international alumni often show up on campus unannounced. They want to visit the place that made a difference in their lives. It’s almost like a pilgrimage. Liberal and SCCC/ATS earn deep, abiding affection from these young men and women.
My younger nephew, on the other hand, said he wished summer would last a few more months. Not a fan of homework or the confines of the classroom, he prefers social interaction with his diverse group of friends: fellow MKs from the States, children of diplomats stationed overseas, sons of Asian millionaires who hope to send the next generation to prestigious American colleges. They play Ultimate Frisbee and cook giant batches of stir-fry together and, like the teenagers in Liberal, love their tablets and iPhones and video games and SnapChat conversations. If these kids are ready to get back to school, it’s because they want to see their friends.
And that’s OK. As I absorbed the flavor of our family’s youngest members’ lives, it occurred to me that, geographic location notwithstanding, their lives are not that different. Nor do they deviate from what I observe at the college and the high school. Children who grow up in Liberal experience an incredible range of racial, national and socioeconomic diversity.
When they finally launch into the wider world, they’re astonished to find peers who haven’t eaten lunch with friends who learned English on the fly, who share stories of their own cultural traditions. At bigger universities, public and private, one young man told me, “everyone sticks to their own group, and you can go all year without ever having a conversation with someone who isn’t pretty much just like you.” That’s not how he grew up in Liberal.
There was a time when well-established residents — the folks who homesteaded, toughed out the Dust Bowl, saw the first energy boom and bust, the people with great-grandparents buried in tiny country cemeteries — fretted about demographic change. These worries still float to the surface occasionally. If you grew up in a rural community of 1,000 people or less, it’s going to startle you to see a woman in a burkha shopping for produce at the local discount store.
Our young people, however, are undaunted by change. They’ve already become part of what theorists and politicians like to call, quite grandly, “a global community.” Whatever your politics, though, it just makes sense to know your neighbors and offer them a helping hand.
My children and their peers understand this. If someone is wiling to work hard, learn to communicate with those around him/her and offers a friendly smile, the students at LHS are ready and willing to start a conversation. This attitude is well-established at SCCC/ATS, too.
And we adults, though not enrolled in classes, have a lot to learn from the students around us.