Book tells story of former GM assembly line workers at school

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Anna Marie Lux
Saturday, December 21, 2013

JANESVILLE--When Sharon Kennedy came to Janesville's Blackhawk Technical College in fall 2007, she had no idea she was about to witness a historic migration from the assembly line to the classroom.

As vice president of learning, she saw the Great Recession and the end of production at Janesville's General Motors plant force thousands out of work.

Then, she watched former assembly line workers arrive at BTC.

From 2008 to 2011, student enrollment jumped 54 percent, the highest enrollment increase in the history of a state higher education school, Kennedy said.

Many who came were not General Motors workers, whose last day on the assembly line was five years ago Monday.

“GM workers had many more options,” Kennedy said. “We were working with people who supplied GM. When GM went down, so did they.”

The college saw 1,500 plant workers, from places such as Alcoa Wheel Products of Beloit and Lear and LSI, both of Janesville.

“The median age of our student went from 28 to 40,” Kennedy said. “The college turned gray almost overnight. It is probably something the college won't see again.”

Two years into the economic plunge, she realized someone should be reporting the compelling story of the workers, who overcame fear and anxiety to succeed in the classroom.

She decided to write and publish the story herself.

Kennedy documents the upheaval in a new book, "Classroom at the End of the Line." She examines three colleges in the Midwest, including BTC, where she worked until retiring in July.

Kennedy conducted 43 interviews between 2010 and 2012 and includes excerpts in her book “to memorialize the experience of the workers and the college staff and faculty who served them,” she said. “I think it's an important story not only for people in education but also for the general public.”

Kennedy now lives in Michigan, where she grew up, but her six years in Janesville have honed an emotional connection to Wisconsin “which won't go away,” she said.

Originally, Kennedy was going to write only about assembly line workers at BTC. But she broadened the book to include a college in Michigan and one in Indiana because each represented a different model of a two-year school.

She found a common thread among the workers at all three.

“The vast majority of these students suffered in ways that other students do not,” she said.

Many never thought they would go to college because they expected to retire from their factory jobs. Some had to overcome the idea that they were not college material. One woman quoted in the book pleads with her instructor after his first assignment that required her to write a short research paper.

“But you don't understand,” she said. “I'm just an old factory woman.”

“The student was asking the instructor to take pity on her and not have such a high expectation that she could do the assignment," Kennedy said. “This one statement said it all.”

Some workers, such as the woman, had been on the line for decades.

“For them to come to a learning institution and to get up to speed was harder,” Kennedy said. “They often didn't like high school and never thought they would have to go to school again. The people at the (Rock County) Job Center had to tell them that college was quite different, and they should give it a try.”

One of the college's biggest challenges was that some workers had no computer skills.

“They needed to do papers,” Kennedy said. “They needed to send emails to their teachers. But they had no idea how to do any of it. Students were surprised they were expected to use word processing to turn in their homework.”

To get them help quickly, the college set up one-on-one tutoring, and more basic computer courses were added to the schedule.

Over and over, the new students expressed concern about whether they had the abilities to get good grades.

“Their worries were based on fear, not fact,” Kennedy said. “They said it was important to prove they were more than 'plant rats.' They needed to prove they were smart and good learners.”

Many did just that.

“Once they found out how to be students, they became exemplary students,” Kennedy said. “They did not have issues with absenteeism or being tardy. They made the honor roll. They took leadership positions at the college.”

She calls the transformation of the assembly line worker “the story of America.”

“It took a lot of partnerships to get people through college,” she said. “It is such a cliché, but it really took a community for them to be successful.”

To the men and women who left the plants and made it in the classroom, she said:

“Their lives were transformed. This is what we hope education does. They are different human beings now, and they feel they are better human beings now. For me, that made all the angst and anxiety worth it because of how people came out at the end of the experience.”

Anna Marie Lux is a columnist for The Gazette. Her columns run Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call her with ideas or comments at (608) 755-8264, or email amarielux@gazettextra.com.

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