1. Opinion

These students of color were the most dedicated college students I've ever taught | Bill Maxwell

Published Aug. 2, 2019

I recently taught two writing courses at Miami-Dade College-Homestead Campus as an adjunct professor. Nearly 90 percent of my students were Hispanics, many of them Mexican farmworkers. I'm writing about this experience in light of President Donald Trump's constant attacks on people of color, with Hispanics being one of his favorite targets.

Before Miami-Dade, I'd taught for 20 years at colleges and universities in other Florida cities, Alabama, Illinois and Texas. My 53 Miami-Dade students were the best I ever had even though none had superior SATs, and most didn't write as well as students I'd had at other schools.

But they had something else, something of great value I wish I could explain to Trump and his die-hard supporters. These students were the hardest-working, most respectful and most polite I have encountered. They addressed me as "Professor Maxwell" and "Sir."

After I gained their trust, I learned that many were the first in their families to attend college. Some were Dreamers, those who entered the United States as minors with their undocumented parents. Their hope was to become U.S. citizens.

I spoke with many of them about this. Some wrote essays about it. They said that education is essential to them and their families; that education offers the straightest path to becoming "real" Americans; that respect for and courtesy toward their professors is a must. One student said that college is a family affair. Dreamers want to build successful lives so that, among other endeavors, they can help their parents.

One student wrote that if his parents had remained in Chihuahua after his birth, he would've wound up toiling in sun-drenched tomato fields, wasting away on a factory line, selling drugs for next to nothing or he would be dead. Others described their lives similarly.

After more than two decades in the classroom, I had become jaded, going through the routine of teaching how to write the five-paragraph essay and how to read and write about fiction, drama and poetry.

The Dreamers in my classes renewed my zeal to teach. I spoke with several colleagues who told me that their experiences were similar, that their Hispanic students' commitment to learning inspired them.

As an adjunct, I didn't have an office, so each day for two hours I commandeered a corner table in the library to see students. Every day, many showed up to go over their essays or to simply chat. After the first three weeks, I rarely called the roll. Hardly anyone ever missed class, hardly anyone was ever tardy.

I asked a few colleagues if my experiences were unique. I was assured that they were not, that their students were the same.

On the last day of the semester I taught there, I stayed in the classroom and graded most of the final exams for that class. As I exited the room, more than a dozen students waited in the hallway to thank me for being their professor. Some shook my hand. Some hugged me. I was stunned. This was the first time in my career that students — as a group — had thanked me in such a public way.

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A male, who wrote for the campus newspaper, handed me a greeting card and asked me to read it aloud. I did. It simply read: "Gracias." He hugged me and the others hooted and applauded. As I drove to my apartment, my eyes filled with tears. Apparently, I'd made a positive difference in the lives of these young people.

Now, whenever I hear Trump bash Hispanics, I think of my gracious, hard-working Miami-Dade students, especially the Dreamers who are doing everything right to become U.S. citizens.