Speak Your Piece: Students and the Occasional Snake Find Niche in Rural Higher Ed

Rural colleges create an environment for learning, professional success, community service -- and, from time to time, critters.

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The commotion began about 20 minutes into my first class on Monday morning. Through the video screen that connected the students in my college class to a group of co-enrolled high school students at a 2A school three hours away, I saw everyone’s attention divert to something off-camera, followed by murmurs and finger points.

“Everything O.K. over there?” I asked, expecting to redirect their attention back to our video-conference streamed lesson on prewriting strategies for academic essays.

“No,” one of the students remarked, still eyeing something off camera. “There’s a snake. In our classroom.”

Two boys from the hallway bounded in at the first shrill mention of “snake” to heroically capture and dispose of the intruder so class could resume. I was thankful, though I can’t say this was the first time a wild animal was interrupting day-to-day operations at Blinn College.

I teach at a rural campus of a state community college, located in a town of less than 2,700 people. We are bordered by an urban triangle of Austin, Houston, and San Antonio, though it’s Texas: there’s a lot of land to cross before getting to one of those locations.

After a couple of years at the college’s flagship campus, I was asked to fill a vacancy at their roughly 200-student commuter campus in Schulenburg. My master’s degree is in English, and I was hired full-time to teach five classes per long semester. But in addition to English, sometimes I also teach Pilates, a certification picked-up years ago because there was no kinesiology instructor on our campus. That’s how we operate on a small campus: if something needs to be done, we find a way to do it.

For students, a rural campus has its charms. While many college students complain about traffic congestion and high costs, ours enjoy ease of parking and less than $5 meals in our student center—manned by a workforce of one. Have a question? Call. A live person will actually answer.

Audrey Wicks teaches English at the Schulenburg, Texas, campus of Blinn College.
Audrey Wick teaches English at the Schulenburg, Texas, campus of Blinn College.

But rural colleges are slaves to their location. Our campus sits in the southwest corner of the community college district it serves, one of fifty-one districts that divides Texas’ 254 counties. Last year, we attracted half of a local high school’s graduating class. Management was thrilled! Until they understood the numbers.

That graduating class had sixteen students: our population swelled by eight.

This year, our campus lost one-third of its enrollment from the previous academic year. The reason? Faculty surmise it’s “death by a thousand cuts:” a few smaller than average local graduating classes, groups of peers deciding to bypass the two-year experience and go off to the university together, some students opting for online-only classes, local job losses in oil and fracking that suck population away. The reassignment of our dedicated recruiter a few years ago to one of our larger campuses certainly didn’t help.

Will our enrollment be better next year? Here’s hoping.

No one is happy with a decrease of enrollment, least of all the full-time faculty members who await nail-biting, eleventh-hour class cancellation decisions, which are a necessary evil with class sections which draw low enrollment. Our college faces challenges of resource allocation and will cut such classes as administrators look for ways to balance revenue and expenditures, speaking sometimes in hushed conversations about how much to support an area with limited growth.

But what they sometimes fail to see is the on-ground difference higher education makes in an area starved for it.

My new local pharmacist is one of my former students. So, too, are nurses at the local clinic. Teachers at my son’s elementary school. More than one of the writers at the county’s twice-weekly newspaper. Some graduates leave the area, but many stay. They enrich the community through the work they do, most of them wildly grateful for the chance to have gotten their start locally at our college.

Just this week, I received an invitation to a former student’s wedding. She previously kept in touch to tell me about her university transfer, a new boyfriend, a new job, and then the marriage proposal. Longer-than-a-semester bonds can form on a rural campus where faculty are available and visible to help students celebrate their successes.

Visibility, though, can be a double-edged sword. When I go to the grocery store to find the only available check-out line is manned by a boy in my 9:10 a.m. Comp. I course, I sigh and hope he doesn’t feel uncomfortable ringing-up the feminine products in my cart. That no make-up/flip-flop/sweatshirt clad run I made to fill-up the car with gas? I should have remembered the attendant was in my Tuesday/Thursday literature course.

I don’t have anonymity in the community, but I’ve also grown O.K. with that. When people see me, I want them to remember the college is here. I want them to be proud to have such close access to quality higher education. I want them to feel like Blinn College is their local college.

Revenue is lean, and purse strings are tight. I have no idea what the future of our small campus holds. If the past is any indicator, I’ll probably have a few more field mice who find their way into my office. I’m sure I’ll see that jackrabbit who lives behind our building, nibbling on the unpicked produce teeming from the community garden apportioned to a corner of our campus lot. Maybe there will be another snake, live or video-conferenced. But whatever the future, I hope to see it—from the location of a community college campus that matters to its rural environment.

Audrey Wick is an English Professor at Blinn College.


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