New memoir celebrates community colleges

Open to opportunity

By Dagney C. Ernest | Nov 22, 2017
Ned Bachus

Camden — Ned Bachus was, in his own words, an underachiever. Born in Quebec to a French-Canadian mother, he was, at 17, after a lackluster high school career in Philadelphia, headed to “the only school that I could afford and that would accept me.”

That school changed his life; it led to a career in education and a far-reaching appreciation of the American community college system. Bachus will introduce his new memoir about the experience and the institution Thursday, Nov. 30, at 5 p.m. at Camden Public Library.

Bachus’ book, published by Wild River Books, is titled “Open Admissions: What Teaching at Community College Taught Me About Learning.” It was launched last month at Philly’s famous Mermaid Inn, and a number of Bachus’ former students attended.

“I was amazed at the number of people who spoke during the Q&A about their family members who'd gotten their start at a community college,” he said by email. “Finding and sharing the typically untold success stories of community college and nontraditional students is my next project.”

Bachus’ own success story began at the Community College of Philadelphia, which was just in its second year when he enrolled. In addition to the lower cost and willingness to take him on as a student, CCP “was within reach of the subway, trolley or bus.” After two years, he transferred to Temple University — “also on the subway line” — and there completed a degree in psychology. He graduated sure of two things: he wanted a job somewhat related to his major; and “it better not involve math.”

As things turned out, Bachus found himself hired to teach high school-age students English and, yes, math, at the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf. He had grown up near the school and had a deaf great-aunt, but otherwise had a steep learning curve that included acquiring American Sign Language. After two years, he was accepted into the master’s program in counseling at the prestigious Gallaudet College (now University) in Washington, D.C.

“Six years after leaving CCP, I found myself back, having been hired as a counselor to work with both deaf and hearing students. Job roles changed over the years, and I had the opportunity to do a number of different things there,” he said.

The opportunity to have accessible and affordable college education is more important now than ever. As college tuition rises wildly beyond other rates of inflation, more and more people will turn to their nearby community college, Bachus said, “ … and in areas not near a community college, to their sister programs at wonderful places like U-Rock for an affordable and reliable launching pad to success.”

The relatively new Maine Community College System was established in 2003, capping an evolution that began with the G.I. Bill and subsequent creation of the first Maine Vocational Technical Institute (in Augusta). Five more VTIs were created in the 1960s; in 1989, the six institutions became technical colleges. Today, seven community colleges offer a diverse mix of programs and services. More than 30,000 Maine people are served by the state’s community colleges each year through degree programs, customized training and credit and non-credit offerings.

“College no longer is the exclusive domain of the wealthy and established; that changed long ago,” Bachus said. “Poor people, older individuals, folks whose parents never attended college, full-time and part-time workers, and immigrants all can take steps towards a better future — and towards a lifetime of contributing to American society — because of these schools.”

His own story of transitioning from being a self-described bad student from a working-class, single-parent family to an educator and author with two master’s degrees — Bachus earned an MFA in writing from Vermont College and transferred into CCP’s English Department — informed his teaching method and runs through his memoir.

“I never had difficulty in seeing myself in my students or seeing my students in me,” he said.

In fact, he admits in the book that throughout college and his first graduate degree he was not a very good student. He knows from personal experience “exactly how little time it takes for a student to run right off the tracks” and kept it in mind when he created the courses he taught both deaf and hearing students, at levels from developmental to honors.

“One outgrowth of that was my unorthodox practice of teaching learning theory to my freshman comp students,” he said.

The book, which has been called a love song to affordable higher education, also explores Bachus’ difficult decision a few years ago: take early retirement; or remain, after 38 years, in what he calls his dream job.

“I loved the college's mission and would have remained there even if offered a job at a prestigious school,” he said.

Despite popular misconceptions, the educational opportunity is generally outstanding at the nation’s more than 1,100 community colleges, Bachus said.

“Alumni include NASA astronauts and Nobel and Pulitzer prizewinners, and popular creative artists including actor Tom Hanks and director George Lucas,” he said. “But mostly, the success stories remain untold, as graduates invisibly blend into the American economy as contributors.”

“Open Admissions” shares some of the many community college success stories Bachus has witnessed. He said he met students every semester “whose courage in the face of extraordinary odds firmed up my back.” While one can question whether or not community college should be free, supporting nontraditional college students makes sense to everybody, regardless of political perspective, he said.

“Community college changed my life,” Bachus said, “and figured largely into the educational growth of my wife, our son, my mother and our daughter,” who did a grad school internship at CCP.

Bachus and his wife, Kathleen, live in Camden now, although this fall they are spending a lot of time back in Philly with their daughter, who is undergoing treatment for Lyme disease. He credits a program at Camden Public Library that Kathleen attended for pointing the family in the right direction regarding their daughter's treatment.

“As Kathleen says, we feel like we suddenly found ourselves in a 400-level course we never enrolled in,” he said.

But the couple have firmly rooted themselves in the Midcoast. Bachus is a Friday morning cook at St. Bernard's Soup Kitchen in Rockland, a member of the Rockland Shakespeare Society and is on the board of Mid-Coast Recovery Coalition. And his support of nontraditional college education continues, as evidenced by “Open Admissions” and other efforts.

“I hope to help shine more light on the many, many people … whose lives are far better than they would have been without accessible and welcoming teachers, like one generally finds at places like CCP and U-Rock,” he said.

To learn more about Bachus’ Pushcart Prize-nominated and IPPY-winning writing — and his side gig as a singer/songwriter — visit his WordPress website.

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