BLUE BELL — Historian and author Tara Westover not only spoke at the Montgomery County Community College Presidential Symposium on Diversity on Nov. 12, she also listened.
Westover was the guest at a luncheon during which five student essays were read on the topic of an education experience that had a major impact on the writer's life. The essays were selected by a panel of college faculty from student entries at three campus locations in Blue Bell, Pottstown and Lansdale.
Westover's bestselling memoir "Educated' was used as a lesson for lectures and discussions in the weeks before the symposium. Her story of entering college at the age of 17 with no previous schooling is viewed as an inspiration to many, and its theme of how self-invention through education can change a person was the topic for the essay contest.
The winners, who got to sit with Westover and share lunch, represented different courses of study and different programs at MCCC.
• Sam Rapine is a nursing student who wrote about how his work experience on a sailing vessel and as a firefighter and ambulance worker defined his ambitions. "My traditional education was, and continues to be, a blessing. I owe my capacity to think critically and thoroughly to a legion of teachers and professors whose patience and enthusiasm shine through my best moments and buoy me at my worst," he wrote. "But the most impactful lessons have been those earned with blood and burns, with sleepless nights yielding triumphant successes and with uncertain outcomes and unhappy endings."
• Katherine Howard is a psychology student at the West Campus in Pottstown. She wrote about struggling in school and later discovering that she suffered from narcolepsy. "I felt weak for years, asking myself constantly if I was just being lazy, telling myself if I just tried harder, maybe I could pull myself out of that overwhelming fatigue. In the end, I realized I was strong, stronger than an illness I did not know I had, and stronger than the doubts I and others had about my abilities and motivations."
• Ava Pendlebury is a music student who wrote about how school was easy in the early years. "I was Ava, the smart kid who always came out on top. I was gifted. These misconceptions ... kept my issues hidden." She wrote that things went downhill in middle school and after struggling to cope, she was eventually diagnosed with ADHD. "I no longer saw myself as a gifted yet broken failure," she wrote. "I was impaired, but I was competent and I had a future."
• Delila Matara is an Upper Moreland High School student in the college dual enrollment program. She wrote about feeling like an outsider and being made fun of in middle school until she decided to try out for track. She describes running a race in the first meet: "I badly wanted to look at the people next to me, except I knew I had to listen to my coach ... just look forward."
• Alexandra Hewitt was the only education major among the five essay winners, and she was unable to attend the lunch because she was student teaching.
Her essay, "A Stuttering Student," told how she went through North Penn schools, often self-conscious about her stuttering. But her attitude toward her "difference" changed, she said, when she had the chance to help a younger student in speech therapy.
"I found my calling ... I knew immediately that I wanted to be a teacher after doing this. I want to show children who have things that make them special from a fluency disorder to a different skin color that they can be whoever they want to be. Teaching gives me the ability to inspire and create a brand new world for my students.
"Because of my stuttering, I'm not some cookie-cutter teacher who you would find on Pinterest. I'm someone who has tackled this fluency disorder her entire life, and I'm going into a profession where I speak constantly. It's not going to be an easy task, but it's something I'm passionate about. ... I'm passionate about making a change -- one stammered word at a time."