The day before his final at Gateway Community College, Marc scrambled to find a babysitter. There was a scheduling conflict, he said, and he didn’t have anyone to take care of his eight-year-old daughter, Lera. “It came right down to the wire.”
Marc Strickland, 50, no longer takes classes at Gateway. He has since relocated across the New Haven Green to Yale, where he is in his third year as an Eli Whitney scholar. His political science lectures have moved from Gateway’s glass and steel building at 20 Church Street to the gothic, white brick Sheffield-Sterling-Strathcona Hall at 1 Prospect. Strickland’s wife is also an Eli Whitney scholar from Gateway.
“I don’t think too many people at Yale have to worry about childcare or snow days,” Strickland told The Politic. He and his wife have alternating schedules to watch their daughter. “It’s like a wrestling ring. One person steps in and the other steps out.” Strickland only sees his wife late at night, after 9 p.m. It’s a challenge, he admitted. “But there’s no doubt in either of our minds that it’s a worthwhile goal. It’s worth whatever inconvenience it is now.”
Community colleges like Gateway offer a “crucial piece of the puzzle” for people in his situation. Instructors there understood if he had to watch Lera during a snow day. At Yale, most people mistake Strickland for an instructor, or maybe a postdoc. He likes to explain his unusual situation in two ways. First, he told The Politic that Eli Whitney students are those who have had an extended break from attending classes. Second, most people go through college to prepare for their careers. His career, he says, prepared him for college. At Gateway, however, no one confused him for a professor. There, he was one of 12,000 students —teenagers and adults, fathers and sons.
Spanning two city blocks, Gateway Community College is, quite literally, a welcome mat for those who live outside of the city limits—one third of its students. The community college hasn’t always been a gateway; it only relocated to the downtown city in 2012. Gateway was once a school split in two, with one half in Long Wharf, the other in North Haven. Students with classes on both campuses had a ten-mile commute between classrooms.
The North Haven campus, President Dorsey Kendrick told The Politic, felt like a middle school. And at Long Wharf, only one wall of the building actually had windows. “People had no idea whether it was hot or cold, snowing or raining,” she says. “It felt oppressive.”
“The main objective,” said Evelyn Gard, Gateway’s director of public affairs, “was to create a building that our students deserved.” The situation had to change; it wasn’t fair to the students.”
For the new building to happen, she recalled, Kendrick needed to have “courageous conversations” with o cials who had money and influence—officials at Yale and City Hall.
“People didn’t know who [Kendrick] was,” Gard told The Politic. “But she knocked on doors and walked into o ces and got it done.” President Kendrick, and Gateway, had come out of nowhere.
The historian George W. Pierson once wrote, “Yale is at once a tradition, a company of scholars, a society of friends.” Gateway Community College is a company of scholars and a society of friends—but, given its new building, the school is hardly a tradition. The typical Gateway student is 26, and she commutes from the greater New Haven area. She takes her classes at night, after work. Maybe she chose Gateway for one of its hundred academic programs, or its 3D printer— the largest in the state. Two-thirds of Gateway students receive financial aid. Many are first-generation college students.
At Gateway, Kendrick told The Politic, “We have the baby boomers, generation X, and millennials.” These students create “a microcosm of New Haven,” added Gard.
In a way, Kendrick and Gard represent two different kinds of students at Gateway. Kendrick went to college right after high school as one of three African-Americans at her newly integrated university. Gard’s experience aligns with part-time students who split their time between classes, children, and jobs.
“Their lives are going on,” said Gard, because they’re “raising a family and working. I understand that because I did it myself.”
Unlike nearby schools such as Quinnipiac or the University of New Haven (UNH), Gateway is a two-year college. Its students receive an associate degree or certificate instead of a full Bachelor’s. Many students, remarked Gard, have every intention of transferring to a four-year university after Gateway. Money is a factor—Gateway’s tuition is much lower than that of its private peer institutions. Gard is quick to note that community college students who transfer tend to do better than those who enter a four-year program directly.
“We’re a feeder,” added Kendrick, pointing to the “menu of options” for Gateway alumni: Quinnipiac, UNH, Southern Connecticut State, and sometimes even Yale.
But despite Gateway’s two-year education, Kendrick has built a school that cares for its students. Even without dormitories or ivy-lined quads, Gateway has created a community with its new $200 million building, the largest public project in the state.
It is unapologetically modern. Long walkways run parallel to Church Street. Natural light pours through a multi-story glass wall. During the day, there is no need yet for the grey streetlights lining the building’s internal stairway; they switch on at night, when most students a end classes. Equally memorable is the interactive “learning wall,” three stories high, that beams photos of students and faculty to the drivers headed west on George Street.
But most notable are the stairs. Most buildings relegate stairs to the sides, out of view, strictly as a way to move from floor to floor. These wide, wood-paneled stairs are the equivalent of Gateway’s “Cross Campus.” Someone standing at the top can see the lobby four floors down. The stairs are the heart of the school, the path that each of the 14,000 students must take from class to class. They are at once an art studio, a study space, and a concert venue.
But Gateway’s community owes less to its impressive architecture than to its faculty. Strickland marveled at the support from his instructors. After high school, he had attended Cornell University for two years. He dropped out when he couldn’t afford the tuition. Returning to school after more than twenty years, he found that most of his credits carried over–he only had to complete one semester at Gateway.
But even in that semester, he said, Gateway “had a sincere desire to teach their students. They weren’t put off by unconventional students.”
Aaron Garrison, now a first-year Eli Whitney scholar, was one of those unconventional students. He was 37 when he sat in his first Gateway lecture, his first schooling since high school. Like Strickland, his career happened before college. He spent his twenties traveling around the world with his wife and Mercy Ships, an international humanitarian group providing free healthcare, and eventually made his way to New Haven, where he had three children. Garrison spoke softly as we sat on the fourth floor of Gateway, at the top of the stairs. It was quieter here than on the lower floors, he said, because of all the science classrooms. His greying hair fell near his shoulders, and his eyes matched his blue cardigan.
Garrison’s passion was art, especially film, but that wasn’t practical for his family. He became a fire- fighter for a year. Then he opened a small business—Strokes Painting and Design—with some Mercy Ships friends. He met his second wife, a Yale classics professor, while painting her house. She urged him to try something different, to see if making films could be more than just a hobby. Garrison wasn’t sure. “I had no math skills, no writing skills, and no confidence,” he told The Politic. He even had dyslexia, though it was only diagnosed when he came to Yale. His children had moved to Texas with their mother, and he was visiting six times a year.
“But,” he said, “my wife sat me down and told me, ‘You need to know if you can do this.’”
Garrison noted a mentorship from his Gateway professors that he has not seen at Yale. “Here, you have the world at your fingertips,” Garrison said, “but it’s on you to take hold of that.”
Gateway wrapped itself around him. “I started getting emails saying, ‘You made the Dean’s List! We’re glad to see you doing well in your studies. Are you interested in joining this selective program?’” His English professor at Gateway took him under his wing, and told him that he was one of the two best students he had ever had. “You’re not in the right place,” the professor said. “You need to be somewhere more serious.”
Garrison didn’t apply to Yale until the last minute. He had applied to a handful of other programs, including Columbia’s General Studies school. He sent his last application to Yale after some coaxing from his wife and other professors.
Strickland also didn’t see Yale in his future. The university and the city were “town and gown,” two different worlds. He had lived in the city for almost a decade, yet he had never ventured onto Cross Campus or into Sterling Library. His introduction came when he took “New Haven and the American City,” a Yale course taught by Alan Plattus and Elihu Rubin, that had been arranged through his political science class at Gateway. Strickland went to the lectures in SSS, then returned to Gateway to discuss what he had heard.
“Getting to use the library and a end lectures was a huge experience for me,” said Strickland. He would usually arrive early and also hear the last few minutes of the preceding lecture, Professor Paul Kennedy’s “Military History of the West since 1500.”
And when he came to Yale, that was the first class he took. Always a firm believer in “accepting the odds as they are,” when Strickland decided to apply it felt “like flying to the moon.” But his previous exposure combined with the urging of his professors swayed him towards Yale.
The Yale-Gateway relationship has grown stronger with Kendrick as president of Gateway, and the Eli Whitney Program is only a small piece of the puzzle. The partnership with Gateway Community College is an “area of high priority for our uni- versity and one that involves so many different part of the Yale community,” wrote Michael Morand, a communications officer with Yale’s Office of Public Affairs.
The two schools work together as invested partners in New Haven. When Gateway first moved downtown in 2012, said Gard, it bought an ad in the Yale Alumni Magazine. The ad says “Gown and Gown,” a twist on the oft-used “Town and Gown” to describe the divide between Yale and New Haven.
“We are not Yale,” acknowledged Gard, “but we are just as valuable to the community. We’re partners. Together, we cover the breadth of what’s needed.”
There’s the New Haven Promise, a scholarship for high-achieving New Haven students to a end a Connecticut college or university. To date, there have been 170 New Haven Promise scholars who have gone from the New Haven public schools to Gateway Community College. There’s the Yale@Gateway lecture series, which invites professors like Akhil Amar and Jacob Hacker as guest speakers. The Monday night events, which are open to the public, allow residents to become Yale students for a moment. And then there’s Gateway’s engagement with the New Haven community as a major employer and benefactor.
“We live and breathe a true sense of community engagement,” said Kendrick. “The people we serve are the most disenfranchised parts of our community.”
The relationships between Yale and Gateway are, at their core, about people working as neighbors and colleagues. People like Garrison and Strickland make partnerships real. Proximity helps, and Gateway’s move downtown has made these relation- ships more vibrant. Still, there is room for improvement.
“I want to have more students see Yale as a reality for them,” said Kendrick. Each spring, the Eli Whitney Program visits and speaks with Gateway students.
“We don’t claim that everyone is qualified,” said Gard, “but it would be nice if the ones who are could dream bigger.”
Most students never think Yale is a possibility for them. “Yale is such a beautiful, rich, vibrant, ‘prestigious’ institution,” Kendrick commented, making air quotes with her fingers. “But we would love if Yale was interested in our brightest and best.”
“For some, a Yale degree should be more than just a pipe dream,” added Gard.
Given all that Gateway has learned from Yale, Yale should also learn from its neighbor. Gateway students derive their common ground from shared experiences. Each of them attends school to bridge the gap between where they are now and where they want to be. That drive for self-improvement, said Strickland, holds a powerful lesson for Yale students.
Strickland also noted room for Yale students to learn from those who have lived and worked in New Haven. Strickland remembered a class last semester in which they had discussed why single parents didn’t bring their children to jobs that offered childcare. Some students had pitched lofty explanations like “masculine, uninviting architecture” of the workplace.
Then Marc raised his hand. It was difficult, he told the class, to fit a baby carriage on a crowded bus. “That reason didn’t cross anyone’s mind,” Marc said. “It felt good because I contributed a view that people hadn’t considered.”
On the coffee table in front of Kendrick is a picture book called “Soaring in New Haven.” Although its pages are limited to local wildlife, its title applies well to the school of its owner. Gateway Community College, she comments, is what drivers first see when they take Exit 47 into the city. “We,” she says, stretching her hands towards the highway, “are the gateway to New Haven.”