Notes from the President

Chris Gray, Ph.D. l Founding President, Erie County Community College of Pennsylvania

A trip to urgent care. A last-minute childcare cancellation. Even a flat tire! In some cases, that’s all it takes to irrevocably derail a student’s journey.

But wait, how can that be in 2022? I mean, it’s an annoyance if I get a flat tire, but it certainly won’t change the trajectory of my life, will it? No way. When I get a flat tire, I just get the jack out, put on the spare, and drive to the local tire place to have it repaired or replaced. Less than an hour and as little as $40 later, I’m back on track – slightly delayed and annoyed for certain, but back to business as usual. But that’s my reality, and it is most certainly not the reality for so many community college students.

Let’s start this hypothetical with that $40. I can usually get my hands on $40 easily enough; even if I don’t often carry cash anymore, it’s not a big deal to swing by an ATM if needed. When I can’t, I could just open my wallet and use a credit card. And, even if for some reason even that didn’t work, I could call most of my friends who have the capacity to help and call in reinforcements (though, admittedly, they may opt out given that it’s me asking!).  But you see, these fortunate circumstances in which I find myself simply aren’t the reality for many of my students. In many cases, $40 is their take-home pay for an entire shift. That unplanned $40 could mean that the electric bill is going to be late, which would incur penalty fees. Or it could be the $40 that was planned for the week’s groceries. Or it could be the cost of their child’s medication. You get the idea.  For these students, the stakes are much higher than mere annoyance and schedule discombobulation: $40 could mean the difference between eating or going hungry.

A couple of years back, I saw the “Minimum Wage” episode of Morgan Spurlock’s 30 Days series, and it really resonated with me. The numbers in that episode are surely a bit dated by now, but the themes are not. In this episode, Morgan and his fiancée Alex head off to Columbus, Ohio, and see if they can live for thirty days on minimum wage incomes. I won’t spoil it for you if you haven’t seen it, but their experience highlights what I’m talking about here: one unplanned expense can wreak absolute havoc on those who live their lives on the knife’s edge. 

It’s become common knowledge that more than half of all Americans are just one paycheck away from potential ruin; living paycheck-to-paycheck is the modern American way, and when something happens to derail these people’s ability to work — even for a few hours — financial disaster can result. It’s not hard to see that, when confronted with the need to support themselves and their families or attend classes, our students will often give up on their own educational goals in the name of survival. I’ve talked about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs previously, and that discussion should be revisited; our students cannot engage in self-actualization or improvement if they do not have adequate food, shelter, clothing, and safety first. 

Approximately 75% of today’s community college students work while taking classes. Almost half care for children. Some care for parents, and many care for children and parents as the “sandwich generation.” To these students, $40 might as well be $4,000! It can be insurmountable debt that can result in needing to drop a class in order to pick up an extra shift. Many community college students don’t have access to the $40 in cash, lack available credit options, and aren’t part of a network that would enable them to borrow $40 quickly in the event of an emergency. And that is why I am asking you now, unabashedly and directly, if you’ll help to provide a failsafe such that EC3PA students’ attempts to better themselves are not derailed by a $40 flat tire.

Next week, the Erie Community Foundation is sponsoring Erie Gives. I’m asking each of you to consider giving $40, or whatever you can afford, to help establish an Emergency Fund for EC3PA students. Our staff will use this fund to provide emergency relief to students to ensure that they can stay on track when unexpected financial hurdles appear. We plan to use all money collected to help students address unexpected financial hardships, and we rely on folks like you to help. This year, we helped a student fix her laptop after she came to our counselor in tears because she didn’t have the time to use the campus computer lab between school and taking care of her children. Another student’s car broke down, rendering him unable to attend classes for two days in a row. When we reached out to him, he shared that he didn’t have the $120 necessary to get the car fixed, which was the only way that he could return to class. These are the real barriers that our poorest students face every day, and we can be part of the solution.

Next week, I will be donating to EC3PA through Erie Gives and I encourage you to do the same. In so doing, we are investing in our students and, thus, are investing in ourselves and our community. As the community’s college, I believe that we can help to create a better Erie County one student at a time, and that’s what this is all about. I appreciate your consideration and generosity. Together, we can make this happen!