Overcoming Long Odds
College-Produced Film Documents Students’ Academic Journeys
So moved was one community college instructor after viewing the film “No Greater Odds” that she made a life decision on the spot.
She had taught at the community college level for 50 years, she said, and planned to retire this year. She already had filed all the requisite paperwork with her school’s human resources director. She was finished.
But this small documentary film carries a large emotional impact — big enough for this professor to change her mind and vow to stay on the in the classroom for at least one more year.
Her impromptu promise elicited applause from the group of about 30 community college faculty members who watched the film at the 38th Annual International Conference on Teaching and Leadership Excellence staged by NISOD, the National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development and held in Austin, Texas.
The 56-minute film follows the stories of five students who struggle toward college completion as they struggle with complex family issues, financial obstacles and personal hurdles. The film’s promotional material says it is designed to challenge misconceptions about community college students and spotlight the how community colleges help their students succeed. For learners and leaders alike, it is a reminder of how important community college is in the context of higher education.
The film looks like it could have been produced in Hollywood. It has slick production values, handsome images and an original score. But “No Greater Odds” is purely a CSN production. A graduate of the college directed it. Students enrolled in the college’s Videography and Film Program, under the supervision of department Director John C. Aliano, shot and edited the footage. Communications instructor Charlene S. Gibson is the associate producer. James R. McCoy, CSN’s associate vice president for academic affairs, is executive producer.
And while CSN is located in Las Vegas, this is not a story of glamour and bright lights. The Las Vegas Strip is nowhere to be found. But it is a tale of big dreams. At NISOD, three of the students and the two producers took part in a panel discussion after the movie was screened.
The film, McCoy said, is CSN’s attempt to contribute to the debate spurred by President Obama’s effort to increase the number of college graduates by 8 million by the year 2020, 5 million of whom will come from community colleges.
“I sometimes have a hard time defending community colleges and explaining what we do,” McCoy said. “This is a glimpse of students that we serve and the mission that we have.”
The film grew from the college’s 2014 convocation for adjunct instructors. The five students who would eventually star in the film had been invited to speak. Their stories moved some of the instructors to tears. McCoy and Gibson decided theirs were stories that needed to be told to a wider audience. It was decided to make a documentary film about them.
“We got so emotionally involved with them,” McCoy said. “We recognized that their stories were unique to them, but represented community college students everywhere.”
“This was a way to exemplify the good work that community colleges are doing through these students’ stories.”
So a dime was dropped and a call was made to Hollywood. No problem, McCoy and Gibson were told. For $250,000, the college would get a 30-minute film. It would be ready in two to three years.
“I said, ‘are you kidding me?’” McCoy said. “We can’t do that. We are a state-funded community college!”
McCoy and Gibson instead decided to enlist the college’s own Videography and Film Department, which proved to be much more efficient and less costly than Hollywood. The film was produced in four months at a cost of about $40,000. The result is a film about community college students, by community college students.
“This is so gripping,” Gibson said, fighting back tears. “This is so emotional. These are stories than need to be told.
“We often don’t have the time to talk about what we do because we are too busy doing it.”
But you won’t see the film in your local Cineplex. This is not a commercial venture. Rather, it is meant to be shown to college faculty, supporters and stakeholders. It has also been shown at the Library of Congress on Capitol Hill, where higher education movers, shakers and policy makers were expected to be in the audience.
Since its premiere in August 2015, the film has been making the rounds at community colleges and conferences around the country. It’s been screened about 50 times in 30 states.
The film’s producers are also looking to enlist other supporters, including actor Tom Hanks, a community college graduate who earlier this year wrote an widely-circulated op ed piece for the New York Times extolling community colleges. Gibson has made it her personal mission to reach Hanks.
“It’s either Tom Hanks or a restraining order,” she said with a smile.
But the real stars of the production are the students. They range from a mother of six, a high-school dropout who thought she was destined to a life of menial jobs and destructive relationships; a 32-year-old sexual abuse victim who walked out of a college classroom ten years before returning to CSN; a Las Vegas native who was about to receive his psychology degree before realizing his first love was music; a woman who had to start working at 15 after her mother broke her back; and an Armenian immigrant who struggled to find her place in a country very different from where she came from.
Each of the students, in their own way, describes how they were touched and motivated by their instructors, in ways big and small.
“Everything you say to students sticks with them,” Gibson said. “Sometimes you are the only one who cares. These are the things that make a difference as to how these stories end.”
The producers are actively seeking out more venues to screen the film. For more information on the film, or to arrange for a screening of the film, go to www.nogreaterodds.com or call 702-651-7357. Get more information at facebook.com/nogreaterodds and twitter.com/nogreaterodds.