By Blake Plante ’19
It’s moments like sitting in front of a disheartened community college counselor when you realize how little is expected from you by this world. Don’t get me wrong. I met inspiring and encouraging people at community college, and it was their encouragement that gave me the confidence to aim high. But, like the motto of the TV show Community goes, if you go to community college, you are often encouraged to “lower your expectations.”
As a community college transfer student, I can say that Pomona College didn’t just give me an education; it gave me the assurance that I was believed in—that whatever it was, I was doing something right, and I should adjust my expectations accordingly. But the transition hasn’t been easy. Here are some of the things I’ve learned in my two years since moving from community college to Pomona.
Get involved immediately.
While I was at community college, I was heavily involved in extracurriculars. It began with a few, then quickly barreled into four concurrent intensive leadership positions. By the time I transferred to Pomona, I was fatigued by campus politics and groups, and I took a breather for a year. This was the wrong decision. Meaningful extracurricular opportunities are abundant at the Claremont Colleges and often feel far more impactful than class work. This is because campus organizations here have serious power and capabilities that go beyond the campus itself.
After a year had passed, I started to get involved as a writer for the Claremont Journal of Law and Public Policy, where I began to realize how much I enjoy writing for a publication. Soon, I hungered for more involvement. I’d had a lingering desire to start a storytelling club akin to The Moth, which eventually morphed into a 5C literary magazine called Careless that I worked to start remotely during a semester I spent in D.C.
Unfortunately, because I waited, I now only have one more semester to lay down strong roots for the magazine before I graduate. Had I entered Pomona as a freshman, my second year would have been a fine time to get involved in leadership opportunities. You can start in an entry position and then work your way up until you have a senior position by the end of your time here. But, as a transfer student, time is a luxury that I haven’t had. Having put things off, I had only a year and a half left to accomplish things proportional to my ambitions.
The stakes are different.
It took me some time to learn that I’d incorrectly framed my understanding of essays. My perspective on essays was based on the French infinitive essayer—”to try” or “to attempt.” At community college, my writing was always an attempt at something: a political argument, a literary explication, a research paper, a book review, etc. What I tried for was a good grade. Regardless of the grade I got, though, my writing hadn’t been publishable. What I’ve learned at the Claremont Colleges is that I shouldn’t just write for a grade; I should write to say something real. Poems should be sent to literary magazines; research papers should be based on the strongest research available so that they can be submitted to conferences and journals. There are countless opportunities to make your schoolwork matter here. But seeing so many opportunities, and sometimes achieving so few, the high expectations fostered at the Claremont Colleges can take an emotional toll.
It is human to compare ourselves, but it is bewildering.
Comedian Bo Burnham, white, 6’5”, young, probably depressed, and wildly successful, reminds us that we all face different problems, some smaller and some bigger, but all of them matter. As students at an elite school, we sometimes face the feeling that, compared to our peers, the things we do aren’t good enough. Nothing I do is ever good enough for me, I’ve conditioned myself to think. I want to feel like I’ve done something great to get here and like I’m doing something great while I am here, but I am the last person to find satisfaction in my successes. We feel a burden, like we need somehow to get to the top of the world and can’t settle for any less.
Yet, there’s our privilege: we go to gorgeous campuses and get a fantastic education and opportunities the likes of which few ever get to enjoy. For the low-income college student, this “burden” approaches ridiculousness. You come back home after having lived among giants, feeling inadequate because, no matter what you do, you don’t see yourself as even tangentially able to compare. Soaked in these feelings, you see your old friends and your family again and realize: by conventional standards, I’ve made it. Many of my friends are working retail and abandoning their dreams, and here I am complaining about feeling inadequate. Now I feel bad for feeling bad about myself.
Tom Leabhart, professor of Corporeal Mime at Pomona College, taught me that inside all of us is an artist struggling to break out. He tells a story about little gremlins whispering in our ears, saying “you can’t do that,” and “this isn’t for you,” and “you’re not good enough.” And that one should say: “get thee behind me, enemies of art!” I think the idea is that somehow, through expression, we can put those feelings of being impostors behind us, and in the process discover a great deal more about who we are.
As a community college transfer student, I sometimes find it difficult to figure out where I belong in-between colliding worlds. It is hard to relate back to my old community, and it is hard to relate to my new one. But somehow, by working through it, I try to put behind me my own enemies of art and let myself go—forward. Because sometimes, just as the school has trusted you, you just need to trust yourself.