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Teaching & Learning

Finding belonging and a new calling at community college

| Cyan Hite, 2022 DREAM Scholar

Stories & Case Studies
June 3, 2022
Cyan Hite stands in a hallway at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College.

When I was accepted into the Laboratory Science Technology program at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College, doors opened that I didn’t know had existed. I was accepted into my program during the summer of 2020, also known as the summer of quarantine, the summer of stepping away from society, and the summer of transitioning into the person I wanted to be. When I shifted my focus from nursing to science, I was terrified that I wouldn’t have the capacity to understand the complicated mathematics and discipline behind subjects such as chemistry, physics, and biology. I also wasn’t completely sure how I would apply my degree, a question that I was frequently asked when I switched programs. All I knew at that moment was that I wanted to learn. I was ready to tackle any obstacle standing between myself and simply that.

My transfer into the Lab Science Program was academically seamless. I spent the summer finishing off prerequisite classes before starting my first college-level chemistry course. I remember sitting at my kitchen table on that first day class. I had a fresh piece of paper ready for notes and my children curiously watched in the background. My chemistry instructor appeared on the screen, and I remember her saying: “A year ago I would have said it was impossible to teach chemistry virtually, but somehow we are going to make it work.” I looked around the kitchen, the living room, to my children playing nearby, and I realized this was a strange place for everyone. It wasn’t going to be easy, but we were going to make it work. This became a theme that lingered throughout the next two years.

The summer following my first year in the program, I had the opportunity to complete an internship with Dr. Angelo Kolokithas, an instructor at NWTC. I learned hands-on about his ongoing research with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and his experience in virology and research. The internship not only provided me with a great deal of knowledge and the ability to learn new skills, but it was also one of the first times I’d truly felt a sense of belonging since returning to school. In the lab, we were there to do science — to share and further knowledge on something we were passionate about. It was an environment where I gained the confidence to ask questions, make mistakes, and gain independence — skills I later found to be critical as I continued transitioning to other classes in the program.

“I started to see education as an opportunity to use science to connect and inspire young minds while fostering a sense of belonging in my own classroom.”

Science education was a seed that was planted my first year in the program by another instructor. It wasn’t a pathway that had come intuitively to me, and at first, I wasn’t sure if it was a path for me. In the past, I hadn’t thought of myself as a leader, much less an educator.  While some of my deepest connections with science were inspired by science communicators such as Carl Sagan, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and several others, I hadn’t anticipated myself being in that role. The seed, however, began to take root as my academic and personal confidence began to grow. I began forming connections with other faculty and students and realizing how strong my passion for science and education truly was. I started to see education as an opportunity to use science to connect and inspire young minds while fostering a sense of belonging in my own classroom.

The first year-and-a-half at NWTC, I rarely spoke openly about my own “weaknesses” such as being a single parent, my gender-nonconforming status and member of the LGBTQIA+ community, or someone still grieving the loss of a family member. I feared peers or instructors seeing me as less, and therefore expect less from me as a student.

Earlier this year, everything came full circle through the experiences and insight I gained as a 2022 DREAM Scholar with Achieving the Dream. I was given the platform to acknowledge who I am and where I came from. A session titled “Belonging Isn’t a Byproduct, It’s a Prerequisite: The Pedagogy of Real Talk and the Transformative Impact of Putting Belonging First” impacted how I viewed vulnerability in others and myself. The impact of hearing how “vulnerability isn’t a weakness, but a chance to form connections” changed how I approached viewing “weaknesses.” I learned that the parts of me I kept closed off weren’t weaknesses, but rather strengths and forms of human connection and expression.

I am eager to begin my next journey, where I will finish my degree in science with a second emphasis in 4–12 education. My experiences at NWTC and Achieving the Dream have given me the tools to become the kind of person and leader I want to be.

This blog post is the first part in a series that will highlight first-person stories from the 2022 DREAM Scholars. Learn more about the Scholars here.

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