Non-Measurable Mondays (Wednesday Edition): “Owning Her Education,” by Erica McCormack

Non-Measurable Mondays is a weekly feature for the Fall 2015 semester, featuring stories and essays on modes of student success that cannot be grasped by data. We are seeking submissions for the full semester, which can be sent to me at For more details, see the original post here.

As one of the vice-chairs of the Assessment Committee, I believe in assessing the student learning outcomes that are measurable to help us better understand student learning, but I am grateful to have an opportunity to reflect on the non-measurable yet vital lessons that our students learn and that we learn from them.

A couple years ago, I had an international student in one of my interdisciplinary Humanities courses (I won’t specify the country or her name). She had been a medical doctor before moving to the US and was working hard to complete an AS degree at HWC and planning to apply to a physician assistant program or something similar. She struggled with her English, but it was always an active struggle. She was incredibly diligent, using the Writing Lab and other campus resources to submit impeccable work throughout the semester.

Months after our class ended, I received an email from her stating “I have learned a lot of interesting things from the course,” and “I am applying what I have learned to my life.” Those kinds of comments are always nice to receive; however, this was no generic thank-you email. Specifically, she went on to explain how our class discussion of a particular poem made her realize “I have the right to be happy, loved and respected.” I could not ask for a better outcome for each of my students than to truly learn that lesson, but it’s certainly not something I would want to try and measure.

The poem that inspired this insight was “I Cannot Remember All the Times” by Jo Carson (you can read it here, pages 51-52: My student shared with me, in that email, that the poem detailed “exactly what happened” to her. When I read that, I was devastated and felt horrible that I didn’t suspect at all what she was enduring at home when she left our class each day that semester.

She explained that after her husband brought her to the US, he discouraged her from pursuing her educational goals (telling her to work in a nail salon instead of pursuing her medical education) and became physically abusive. When she called the police, she said they didn’t do anything. She said that after her husband choked her, she moved out but was “unsure about the divorce” until she read and contemplated the Carson poem in the context of our class discussion.

She expressed gratitude for the thoughtful comments she heard from her classmates about the poem and said that for the first time, instead of worrying that she would be judged for “betraying” her husband, she felt supported by her community, even though her classmates had no idea that when they were speaking about the poem, she felt that they were speaking to her. She said, “Now I understand that he is not going to change his behavior. Everything will happen the same if I come back…I want a better life for myself. I think I have the right to be happy, loved and respected. I want to go to school and finish my education.”

That phrase “my education” means so much to me because I can only imagine the strength that it took for her to assert power over her education and her life simultaneously. For most of us in Education, it is natural to link these together, but we sometimes overlook how much it takes for our students to achieve this self-determination and how powerfully the classroom environment can contribute to these efforts.

She concluded, “What I have learned from your class and the poems make me stronger.” I know that the strength came entirely from her, but I am grateful that our curriculum could provide her with an impetus to make a decision that she had considered in different ways for some time.

As an aside…This just reinforces for me that each of our students deserves to pursue their education, not a one-size-fits-all prescription. I’m beyond proud and gratified to work with colleagues and students who are committed to helping one another do this every day, and I hope that our larger institutional administration does not force us into the role of abusive spouse, dictating to our diverse communities which jobs their residents are allowed to pursue by denying them access to the full array of college programs within their community. Instead, I hope we can be true to our mission and support every student as they define and pursue whatever constitutes their version of “my education.”

Erica McCormack is a Professor of Fine Arts and Humanities at Harold Washington College

2 thoughts on “Non-Measurable Mondays (Wednesday Edition): “Owning Her Education,” by Erica McCormack

  1. I hear that the link may not be working for people. If a book opens and you can enter a search term, enter the title, and it should bring up the relevant pages. If that still doesn’t work, email me and I’ll let you borrow it.

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