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

I sat down this week prepared to write a light piece about our first summer semester at EC3PA, slated to start next Tuesday. It’s another first for us — another time of excitement — because we are offering an additional opportunity for students to complete courses that move them closer to their educational goals in a condensed eight-week summer course format. For around 140 students, this coming week is one that likely involves nervous apprehension mixed with happiness as they take another step forward. Students are building their schedules, and classes are filling up. It’s all working according to design, but it’s still thrilling to see it happen in real life.

To write that post, however, would make me appear oblivious to the immeasurable sadness and suffering that our country has seen in the last few weeks — yet again — more senseless acts of violence. The news has been so heavy, coming first from Buffalo and now Texas, and we are feeling that heaviness here in Erie County. To talk about summer courses without addressing the losses of this week would be the worst kind of tone deafness that I can imagine.

Hatred led to the racially motivated murders of ten people. Mothers, brothers, friends, students, neighbors, all senselessly hunted down because of the color of their skin. Now, the Robb Elementary School shooting in Uvalde, Texas, left twenty-one dead at the time of this writing. It’s the twenty-seventh school shooting of 2022, and it’s not even June. We can’t call tragedies like this “unimaginable” anymore because we are averaging more than one shooting per week, and this is the deadliest school shooting in decades. We don’t have to imagine it; it has become our reality. When tragedies like this happen, it’s easy to retreat into tired and familiar platitudes about “thoughts and prayers” and then go on with our daily lives, but that won’t change the world we live in — either today or in the future. What will make a difference are the people who will come together and decide that it’s time to make serious, lasting change — that enough is enough. In times like these, despondency is easy, and the future looks bleak and dark.

This is, for me, the exact moment when hope comes in. For me, that hope IS our students. I see hope whenever a student walks into one of our classrooms and leaves transformed in some way by our faculty. I feel hope every time we offer a new program or collaborate with a new workforce partner to meet a community need. I experience hope every single time new students join our ranks. I have hope in our students’ ability to change the world.

Next week, some Erie County residents’ worlds will change irrevocably when they become college students for the very first time and do something that they have never done. They will come to us because they are looking to advance in their careers. They will come to us because they are looking to start over. They will come to us because they want to change their family’s story. They will come to us because they are running away from a past or running toward a future. And as ever, we will welcome them with excitement and hope.

According to the myth of Pandora’s box, she lifted the lid and unleashed all the ills of the world. Disease, pestilence, and death flew out to cover the Earth, unimpeded and unstoppable. When Pandora realized what she had done and slammed that same lid down in an effort to mitigate the damage that she unwittingly caused to the world, the only thing left inside was hope. Hope feels like such a small and insignificant thing when the world feels so bleak, but it’s still there, flickering in the gloom. Our EC3PA students are harbingers of what our world could become, and I vest my hope in them — that they will wrestle that better world into existence.