Portland Community College | Portland, Oregon Portland Community College

This content was published: April 8, 2021. Phone numbers, email addresses, and other information may have changed.

At the Living Edge: Toward a New Philosophy of College Access

by Justin Rigamonti

The circle I join is a ring of sleepy-looking people, 9 o’clock on a Friday morning. Coffee cups rise and fall, rippling the inner lip of the circle like an undulating cell. The center holds nothing— a patch of blue-gray carpet and a recording device. Life is at the circle’s edge, ten or so attendees chatting softly in business casual. All the accoutrements of life garland them: jackets and purses hooked around chair backs, pen-ready notebooks, pastries with half-moon teeth marks. The ring in all its energetic motion has a sense of completion. The host clears his throat.

But then the door opens, and a new head pokes in. The newcomer’s eyes dart around the room, their face flush, waiting for affirmation. A few welcoming hands wave them over and the circle prepares itself for growth— a butterfly game of eye-contact until, without a word spoken, the cell begins to make room, chair legs softly pulling over carpet. An open chair appears in the ring’s wall, and the newcomer settles in. Someone makes a joke about mitosis. Close enough.

After a warm nod to our newest member, the host begins again, laying out the conceptual boundaries of the gathering, what he calls a “listening session.” It is the first of many forums hosted by this institution, a community college in Portland, OR. These sessions are an opportunity for faculty, staff and students to speak to administrators, a few of whom are present this morning, equal nodes in the room’s human ring. The host explains that the college is interested in “strategic planning,” and administrators want to know what everyone thinks the college should focus on during this planning stage.

And then the door cracks again. A few of us turn to look, and the conversation falters slightly, but then continues. Life can’t pause for every interruption, can it? The newcomer’s face shifts from analysis to embarrassment. The door begins to close.

But just in time, a few hands take flight, a volley of whispered greetings launch doorward, a chair is made ready, someone gets up and gestures the situation, pastries are proffered, and by the time the newcomer has settled in, greetings whispered from the left and right, their embarrassment is gone.

A living cell grows like any organism grows. Nature’s “building block” nourishes its own being by integrating particles from the surrounding environment into itself.

And so, the outer circle of a cell, its protective wall, must be permeable. Like a draw-bridged fortress, the cell must open to allow food and water in. Otherwise, it would turn away the very bodies that would make it thrive.

Sometimes these bodies can enter without any assistance. Water, for instance, can often dance right through tiny gaps in the cell’s bilayer of lipids. The cell need not expend any energy to allow this; it just happens. Thanks to physics, thanks to evolution, a cell hardly has to lay out the welcome mat and the water rolls in, clear and blessed.

Cell Transport

Cell Transport (image: Center for Research in Biological Systems)

However, other molecules and ions, just as necessary to the cell’s life, don’t have it so easy. The conditions within the cell are different enough from the conditions outside that despite there being no special padlock on the doors of the cell wall, these other essential nutrients struggle to enter.

And so, the cell takes a more active role. Whereas passive transport is possible in the case of those select few particles who don’t need the help, various forms of active transport are used in the case of others.

Built into the cell wall itself, special protein channels get to work, opening and closing, granting access to particles that trigger their specialized doorway. And sodium-potassium pumps begin to whir, pumping in and out electrically charged ions, creating the conditions under which others still outside can find safe passage.

And all of this assistance requires energy. A lot of energy. This energy is siphoned in the form of ATP straight to the cell wall, straight to where it is most needed. One might think that the energy would be sent to the nucleus, to the brains of the operation, but no, it flows straight to the channels and pumps, the greeters and hosts hard at work on the front lines.

Back in Event Center C, the smartly-dressed host of the listening sessions is performing his job with aplomb and the human nodes around the ring’s edge perform theirs as well: they lean in eagerly and speak about what the college is doing well, what could be improved, where we should be headed in the next 10 years.

And hour by hour, as old rings disperse and new ones form with fresh faces and fresh cups of coffee, an image of what the general body of the institution thinks is and isn’t working begins to form as well.

Overall, everyone agrees that the school has its heart in the right place— the school’s messaging and abstract priorities are well-funded, well-intentioned. And there’s also agreement about a primary concern: onboarding.

Onboarding specifically refers to the process by which new employees, staff and faculty, are brought on board the institution— how they are welcomed in. And in that regard, the attendees definitively identify problems: employees often don’t receive adequate training, are generally left to sink or swim, don’t receive enough counsel or encouragement.

Figuratively speaking, problems with “onboarding” plague students as well. Members of the listening sessions agree that students, especially marginalized students, have difficulty navigating the school’s registration system, difficulty knowing what classes to register for, and though there are often ample resources awaiting them once they find their way in— a strength of the school mentioned throughout the day— students have difficulty finding the resources, sometimes not even knowing they exist.

The attendees mention transportation difficulties, rising costs, lack of outreach to communities of color— all issues that could fall under the label of “onboarding”. In other words, the institution’s door might be open and the welcome mat might be rolled out, but hardly anyone finds it easy to get in, or to feel at home once they are in. Especially the ones most at risk of turning around and leaving when no one recognizes their need.

Eager to absorb every last available nutrient, a cell doesn’t stop at the simple machinations of potassium pump and channel. More extreme forms of transportation are necessary.

Cellular Endocytosis (image: Center for Research in Biological Systems)

Cellular Endocytosis (image: Center for Research in Biological Systems)

For instance, some molecules outside the cell don’t fit the protein doorways and ionic alleys. For others, the fluid inside the cell is too foreign, not made for bodies such as theirs. But the cell finds a way.

In a process called endocytosis, the cell opens little pockets along its outer wall. These pockets function as harbors for particles to settle into, and once they do, the cell wall begins to move again, folding over the particles, enclosing them. Then, embraced within their own personal transportation bubble, the particles can drift into the interior of cell and absorb at their own pace.

But for the largest and most distinctive particles, even those little mouths on the cell wall aren’t quite right. And so, in a process called phagocytosis, from the Greek phagein meaning “to eat,” the cell transforms itself, reshapes the entirety of its structure into a giant mouth, its walls no longer walls but gentle jaws reaching out into the murky waters, engulfing the final molecules whole.

Like many community colleges across the country, this college prides itself on being “open access.” While elite universities and ivy league schools grant admission to only a select few students, this college has open enrollment for almost anyone. In fact, it values access so much, the word features prominently in its mission statement: the college “supports student success,” it says, by “delivering access to quality education.”

“Open access” also means that the school is literally open to anyone who would wander in. There are no walls or locked gates, no one checking badges. And so, when I drove through the college’s entrance on this October morning, no one stopped me.

And yet almost immediately, I began feeling less than welcome. When I pulled up to the first of the twin parking payment machines and slipped in my credit card, an error message flashed across the screen. I tried other credit cards. Nothing. I pulled up to the second machine, but its screen remained stubbornly blank no matter what I did. Feeling pressed for time, I decided to risk the ticket I might receive— a risk I could afford, unlike the average cash-strapped student that attends the college.

After parking, I checked my phone for the building and room where the session would be: Event Center C, the email said. I wandered onto campus, and since my progress was unimpeded by walls or fences, I quickly wound up in what seemed like the central courtyard. A five-foot blue sign with a map and a large “i” at the top beckoned to me. Optimistic that I’d soon be in the warm room sipping coffee, I cozied up to the sign and attempted to decipher its map. Alas: though a bird’s-eye depiction of the campus contained outlines of every building, each one with a number in it, there was no key, no way for me to discern which polygon was the Event Center.

I looked around glumly. A student happened to be hustling past, so I flagged them down, blustering my apologies and gratitude, and they kindly gestured their travel mug toward a coffee shop a few buildings away— in lieu of an information desk, which they weren’t sure about.

Inside the airy shop, three campus security officers huddled by the counter. Bingo. I approached cautiously and caught their attention, asking if they knew where Event Center C was. The officer nearest to me squinted his eyes, and after a pause, pointed through the window across the plaza and said, “I believe that’s what you’re looking for.” A modern-looking building glimmered through the glass.

I thanked them, grateful to be headed in the right direction, but it occurred to me as I walked away that most students, especially students of color, would not feel as comfortable cold calling on a group of uniformed officers as I just had. Which means they’d still be as lost as I had been a moment before. They’d still feel unwelcome.

Finally, after wandering into the correct building, someone pointed me to room C, and I cracked the door— there was the host, smiling and waving me in.

What would it mean for this college to live by its mission of “delivering access”?

Clearly, it doesn’t mean simply unlocking the door, what you might call “open access”. Yes, for some students and teachers, armed with the assurance of an entire culture’s clear blessing and preparation, this is sufficient— they can slip right in the gates and find a home, no problem, no assistance needed.

But for most, that’s not the case. For most students and staff, the learning curve is too steep, the internal culture of the cell too foreign, and they end up getting locked out, or lost and disillusioned on their way in. And so they walk away.

A cell can’t subsist on one kind of socially assured particle. Nor can a school. To thrive, both need more than the ones who can slip in easily, who can take financial risks, who don’t need affirmations, the ones for whom stopping to talk to a bristle of cops doesn’t feel like danger.

Maybe the answer is the cell wall, the many thresholds that a student or a faculty member must pass through on the way in. Maybe the answer is to siphon most of the energy there: to the welcome committee, to the advisors and counselors, to the faculty, many of whom are part-time, whose faces are the first to greet students as they walk through the doors. Maybe the listening session is a microcosm example of this: how easy it is for someone to feel unwelcome, but also how easy it is to take the simple steps to make a place for them.

A cell doesn’t hesitate. It bends its entire body to make a home for those who would otherwise be turned away. It doesn’t just open the doors and call it a day. And neither should a college. Like a cell, a college should deliver access, especially one that claims as its central mission to do everything it can to reach out into its community and demonstrate that all are welcome. To put its money where its mouth is, where its doors are, at the living edge.