The Unintentional Impact of a Stranger’s Comment: My journey from high school drop out to community college management

Meet Amy Sikora:
It was 1995 in Phoenix, AZ, and I was at work, sitting on a stool in a plastic factory, bored out of my mind. My sole job there was to move a piece of plastic out of a box, put it into a machine, press a button, and put the plastic into another box. It was a monotonous job that was fitting for a high school dropout like myself. In fact, I was a two-time high school dropout.

I dropped out the first time when I was a junior in high school, because I’d decided that it would be more enlightening to hitchhike around the west coast with my boyfriend. I dropped out for the second time my senior year because I hated the social scene. From my perspective, I’d seen too much on the road to care about proms, homecomings or any of that other junk high schoolers were supposed to care about. That’s right, I was too cool for school.

The straight-A student I used to be wouldn’t recognize the pierced face with the orange mohawk that was looking back in the mirror. For reasons that only made sense to my adolescent self, school was no longer a good fit for me. A better fit was singing in a punk band, and trying to hitchhike to New Orleans. I was also filled with passion for a variety of political causes and often found myself at protests.

This passion made me feel compelled to share my beliefs with others by either screaming about them in my band or at political rallies. One day, as I held a sign and shouted out my politics at a protest, an older man walking by stopped, looked at me, shrugged and said, “Eh, what do you know about the world? You’re just a kid and you don’t even seem to know a whole lot about much of anything”. Ouch. That one hurt deeply, because it was so spot-on accurate.

The next day, I decided that I was going to prove that guy wrong. To me, nothing was more motivating than someone saying that I could not do something or that I was not worth listening to. I quit my job at the plastic factory and decided to go to college. I drove to my local community college and asked what I needed to do to get started. I was shocked to learn that I had to pass a GED test before I could even enroll in college-level courses. I took a study packet home with me and scheduled the exam for the following week. Fortunately, I passed the test, received my GED, and was on my way!

Once I started taking college classes, I was hooked. In fact, I wanted to get others registered too! I took a job in the call center of the Admissions and Registration Office at the college. I worked there throughout my community college career, and even stayed on after earned my AGS degree and transferred to a university. I chose the AGS, because I just loved taking classes and couldn’t choose a major. It was only when I got to the university that they made me pick one, so I asked an advisor what I was closest to for graduation. He said “sociology”, and that’s what I choose. Yup. I put just that much thought into it.

As I got closer to graduation, my piercings were slowly starting to come out, and my hair was back to a natural color, but I still was in the band. When I finished my BA degree, I took a job in Student Services at a proprietary graduate school.  There, I worked with students as they entered the college and all the way through to graduation. I was the registrar, bursar, grad tech, event coordinator, international student immigration advisor, collections person, counselor and more. It was a much different experience than I’d had at the community college, but I learned many lessons about corporate culture in a for-profit education world!

I left the for-profit, moved to Nevada and decided to take a break from higher education to help with family obligations. During my hiatus, I started a freelance writing business and wrote regular submissions to a variety of magazines and worked on search engine optimization articles. It was a fun job, but I missed working with students and did not find it as rewarding.

Finally fleeing the desert, I moved to Oregon and found work at a non-profit foundation working in scholarships. I would read essays and interview scholarship applicants. The words that these students wrote and the stories they told were amazing. Witnessing how much of a difference not having to worry about the cost of college could make in a student’s pursuit of a higher education was truly inspiring. This knowledge only expanded when I next took a job in financial aid at a community college.

In that role, I learned a lot about students in need and what a vital component aid plays in making college accessible for them. It was a sometimes jovial and other times heart-breaking position, but the experience opened my eyes to the fact that students can be successful even when coming from a culture of poverty, struggling with addiction, being in abusive relationships, losing jobs, having small children, being caregivers and more. It was wonderful to learn of their successes and watch them realize that they could do it!

From there, I took a position at a university in academic advising for engineering students. The position was challenging, but rewarding. As an advisor, I felt my job was to teach students how to fish, which meant that although I did not have all the answers, I would help show them how to navigate through the university to find them for themselves. While there, I helped develop a successful peer mentor program and I completed my Master’s degree.

I am now an Assistant Director in Admissions and Registration at Linn-Benton Community College. I do not meet with students as much now as I have in other roles, but my work touches them in many other ways, and I am able to have an impact on entire groups of students at once, rather than individually. Over time, my passions evolved, but my love for higher education has not waned. To this day, I think about that man from the protest. I’d like to thank him for lighting the fire under me that sent me to college and changed my life.

Take it from this former mohawked punk kid factory worker - you never know how your passing comments might affect another person’s life and/or self-identity. Be careful with the words you choose, but feel free to tell it like it is. You just may inspire another person to get on their path to higher education.

Amy Sikora
Assistant Director, Enrollment Progression & Technology
Linn-Benton Community College

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