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Curtis/My Turn: Ensuring a crucial right

“Everyone has the right to education … Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace …”

I believe there is a parallel between the community college mission, in a localized context, and this international assertion made in 1948 by the United Nations that education is a fundamental human right. The U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights sees education as a global solution to global problems, but every problem has a local face and we can all look very personally at the role we can play to address it.

I recently had the honor of being recognized, along with 11 other local women, in The Recorder’s International Women’s Day special insert. In that, I said nothing is more important to me than the mission of community colleges and that I would not be having that conversation were it not for Greenfield Community College, and truer words were never spoken.

Nor would I have the career I have enjoyed since I took my first college class, as a nontraditional student, in 1981. And, traveling down that “road not taken,” I can say I would not have held the jobs I’ve had while building my career, would not have met the people I met and, ultimately, would be living a different life and would never have met the son who I mentioned in the article will be graduating from college soon.

And I simply cannot imagine that.

It is the mission of community colleges that permits students from every walk of life to learn side by side, to not be turned away when they seek to change their lives through education. It is the mission of community colleges that inspires hope through education and allows all of us who wish to, to exercise the options made possible by hopefulness.

A student struggling in high school may find herself next to those who just graduated high school — some with honors and some of more average academics — who chose GCC for their first step into college while they test the waters and discover their educational goals. And they might sit beside many who worked first for a short or long while, or still; who may not have taken the SATs in high school, who may not have even finished high school; who may be raising children or caring for elder family members; who may have served their country or their community by volunteering; who may be seeking haven inside GCC’s walls from adverse circumstances on a faraway battlefield or in their own homes. And more likely, it is combination of two or more of those scenarios that created the pathway to their arrival at Greenfield Community College.

It could all happen, because all can come to GCC if they are ready to try. As Bob Pura, GCC president, has said so often, “all are welcome, all can learn, all can succeed.” But the barrier is dollars. Because of decreasing state support over the past 15 years, and to avoid shifting a greater burden on students, community colleges have had to rely more on their communities to help them continue providing access to a quality education.

GCC’s community stands out as one whose neighbors step forward with acts of generosity to ensure access, and that support is reflected back a thousand-fold in the economic impact the college has on the region and in the too-long-to-list names of GCC alumni who are the business owners, community leaders, elected officials and the cultural and civic backbones of their cities and towns.

I was fortunate to see a speaker deeply involved in promoting the agenda of education as a human right. Chris Mburu of Kenya is an international human rights lawyer who works as a senior human rights adviser for the Geneva-based Human Rights Agency of the U.N. As a child, Mburu was the recipient of an act of philanthropy by Hilde Back, a Holocaust survivor who paid for his education and he pays that act forward every day.

Mburu’s life was changed drastically and permanently by one act of generosity. His educational journey included degrees from the University of Nairobi and Harvard Law School. He has since established a foundation to support the education of children in Kenya.

He described education as not only a human right, but an indispensable means of realizing other human rights. Education is an empowerment right, education is the primary vehicle by which economically and socially marginalized adults and children can lift themselves out of poverty and participate fully in their communities.

Each of us can make that one small act to inspire hope through education and change the world at the local level. I hope your act will be making a gift to the GCC Foundation annual campaign to support this community’s college. Please visit www.gcc.mass.edu/give.

Regina Curtis is executive director of the Greenfield Community College Foundation.

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