Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

Community college is where your future can happen

When I heard about President Obama’s proposal for free community college, I knew that it wouldn’t go over very well.

Sadly, most folks despise the president’s ideas. If he recommended beating children bloody in school parking lots for rules infractions, people would come out against that.

Still, encouraging people to get a two-year degree, even if it costs a lot, has to be less expensive than incarcerating people. A community college president once told me that it cost the state of Florida about $50,000 a year to lock someone up in prison; by comparison, even the most costly state university was a bargain at about $25,000 a year, and community colleges cost about half that or less.

Unfortunately for Florida, the state’s leaders fell under the influence of a well-meaning but terribly wrong adviser who recommended preparing for a tsunami of violent youthful offenders on their way up from childhood. Seeking to be ahead of the curve, the state built several very expensive prisons and staffed them up, waiting for the surge of criminality that never materialized. Out in rural areas, the prisons are still there, but the youths never appeared in the expected numbers.

The reality is that we now live in a society where workers need education beyond high school to get a good-paying job, and those who drop out are going to find themselves in an impossible situation. Back when I was a youth, there were all these ads pushing “high school equivalency diplomas” and I remember the pitches: “He can’t get ahead in business because he lacks a high school diploma.” You could replace “high school diploma” with “two-year college degree,” and you won’t be far off the mark.

I know all this from personal experience.

For me, Palm Beach Community College (now Palm Beach State College) basically reinvented my life. I went into that place in August 1988 as a frustrated veteran and disgruntled postal worker whose dreams of career advancement had been dashed because I thought the Postal Service existed to serve customers.

I left the community college with a two-year (associate’s) degree in journalism, a new peer group of smart friends and the confidence to continue at the university. In April 1994, I graduated from Florida Atlantic University with a degree in communications and within two years was working as a newspaper copy editor.

I worked hard in those years, taking night shifts at the post office and attending college during the day instead of sleeping. But my instructors at PBCC and my professors at FAU gave of themselves, and I am forever in their debt.

At community college, the confidence I gained was well worth the sacrifices I had to make.

I remember getting a variety of advice. Dorothy Martin, my second cousin Angelo’s sister-in-law, gave me so much encouragement. “Whatever you do there,” she said, “take Watson B. Duncan’s courses. He’s the greatest teacher.”

I took those courses, and Dorothy was right about him.

Others were less enthused. My postal bosses were downright negative, advising me that college was a waste of time, and wouldn’t help my advancement in the post office. “We don’t like to promote college people,” I was often told. “They think knowing things is the key to getting things done right.”

What they feared, I later learned, was the worker with a brain and the willingness to use it. I later used the skills I learned in community college to start my own underground postal employee newsletter, “Samizdat,” and even sent copies to the postmaster general. Unfortunately, they were written above his reading level, and his minions were not impressed with my brilliance.

The education I received at community college gave me the tools I needed to counter the anti-education rhetoric I heard at the post office, and I can still remember the last night I wasted at the post office, leaving that shithole facility in West Palm Beach with its cheating on the Price-Waterhouse testing, exaggerated mail volume reporting, mail destruction in the machinery and human destruction by managers such as Gary Miller and Terry Cahill, not to mention Barbara Shaler and Shirley Cordle.

I drove off to an uncertain future, but one that had limitless possibilities. On the way home to my house in Lake Worth, I drove on Congress Avenue in West Palm Beach past Palm Beach Community College.

It was on the left, and I remembered that first day when I had gone on the campus and requested a course catalog and began the process of getting myself admitted.

Now I was heading into a future that that wonderful place had opened up for me, and I gave the place a hand salute as I drove by.

Today, I read about community colleges like State College of Florida (formerly Manatee Community College) and I wish I could go back there, take classes, sit in the sun before the classes start, talk with my fellow students, pull all-nighters at home, spend lots of time there on the student newspaper and just be a part of the academic community.

Community colleges are wondrous places, and I’m not the only one who got a life-course correction in those classrooms.

So let’s support community colleges and get behind plans, no matter where they come from, to get more people to attend community college. Our nation will benefit, of course, but so will the many people who find a new life and a new career in a place where learning is treasured, and students matter.

That’s what happens at community colleges.



January 12, 2015 Posted by | Education, Life lessons | , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

‘Fun’ with public relations people

I was watching a news report that told about how “security” people are making it hard for journalists to talk to people working on the oil cleanup story, though BP insists that reporters should be given access to the beaches and the people.

It brought back fond memories of my days at The Bradenton Times, I had to deal with a person who was the enemy of dedicated reporters everywhere. I got the feeling that this person, who I’ll call Tina, was determined that not one mention of the college she worked for ever appeared in any medium.

The college was State College of Florida, formerly Manatee Community College. It had hired a president who decided to ram through a name change because for some reason, having “community college” in your moniker is supposed to be negative. The president also made some waves over the notion that his American Dream was destroyed because a private school across the street from his house was putting in lights on its sports field, and it had ruined the value of the house he recently bought and was trying to sell.

Anyway, college public relations departments are very intent on keeping reporters from students and teachers, for some reason. I felt that as a reporter I had to right to talk to whoever I wanted to talk to and pursue any story I wanted to pursue, and I didn’t need anyone’s permission to do so. Tina did not agree, maybe because she was just out of college and was just following orders.

My first encounter with Tina was after I saw a press release on the college’s Web site about a professor who had published a book on movies. I wanted to do a story on it, and called the professor directly. He answered, was flattered that someone had noticed, and we had a very friendly and pleasant interview and chat about Woody Allen’s films. The resulting story is here.

Later that day, I was covering an event involving a proposed charter middle school at the college. The people running the program were glad to see me, but worried because they had been ordered not to talk to the media. I wondered at the secrecy, and we did chat off the record for a while.

Later, Tina showed up, approached me and had some pointed words about my reporting methods.

“You called a professor directly,” she said. “From now on you will call my office first, and then I will call you back and let you know if an interview is approved.” After that, she would listen to the interview and decide if all my questions were appropriate.

I told her she was way out of line and that the college’s rules on interviews didn’t apply to me as a working reporter. I could talk to anyone I wanted to talk to at the college, especially over the phone if I was off the campus, and did not need her permission to do so.

She replied that this was the college’s policy. She got even at the event by following me around like a “minder” and listening to all interviews I conducted, even saying that she would decide who I could interview.

Later on, I wrote a piece that I decided not to put up that criticized Tina, and I described her as a graduate of the journalism program at the University of Pyongyang, where she appeared to have learned her “minder” techniques.

It’s usually worse publicity to actively block reporters from a story or interfere with their newsgathering. They’ll try to get the story any way they can, and report on the efforts made to stop the story. This person eventually forgot who I was or decided that cooperating was best because during work for a later story, she was vastly more cooperative and even talked about the journalism business. Maybe she realized that making trouble for reporters would hurt her own efforts to land a job in the news media.

Not many people like or respect the media, and I understand that. But the overwhelming majority of reporters are just looking to inform readers and viewers, and do not have an agenda.

Of course, I am now a copy editor again and never go out on stories. But if the reporters can’t do their job, then I can’t do mine.

June 18, 2010 Posted by | The news business | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment