When I entered junior college in 2010, it required a radical shift in perspective. I attended an independent secular school K-8 and then an independent Benedictine catholic school for high school. This trend of insular schools of little diversity was to continue when I arrived at a liberal arts college in rural Washington state. It had become a lifelong routine. You pursue your degree surrounded by people your age, mostly white, and not filled with wisdom. It’s an environment of smart neophytes. What you can and cannot do as a college student is four years of trial and error, where there are thankfully little of consequence if you screw up.

That college spit me out in a couple of months. I didn’t have the skills, and more importantly didn’t have the sanity to get through it. I came home in November, and almost intermediately applied for junior college starting in January.

For someone who grew up in the white middle-upper class suburban mindset, there are three big things to confront when making a big shift in schools.

1. The diversity. Yes there were blacks and Latinos in prior school, but they were often alone and did not have any kind of ethnic identity in the school. To fit in, they had to acclimate to white expectations. Large social science classes at this college are at least half non-white, you notice a pan-racial tone to develop. A huge portion of clubs are for social and person growth of various groups- like Asian/Pacific Islanders or Latinos. There are also groups involved in dialogue and conquering stereotypes and being academically successful. Also while at previous schools there were ethnic holidays celebrated (like Dia de los Muertos), California colleges use diversity months to have lots of time for pride and education.

It also can make for compelling presentations and classtime. The college has people taken over the border as kids, living and studying while undocumented. Teen mothers, trying to gain the education that had become a secondary priority. Public speaking class had people who were involved in fights and gangs, but turned to martial arts to keep their rage productive. Each class is a wildcard, and you’re not sure who has an amazing story to tell.

2. The public school shock. As a 19 year old who had never been outside of a well-planned private curriculum, it takes some getting used to. Getting help with disability accommodations requires research and patience. Most of the student services are under budget cuts, and the lines can be insane if you don’t start on the first day of term. For so long I took for granted that teachers knew my name, yet even though I speak in class quite often it can take months.  There’s rarely coordination between faculty make sure a particular day isn’t just a six-hour test for some students. Keeping things sane may require actively talking to the professors.

3. The age gap. At an undergrad-only liberal arts school (where I briefly was, and my sister did about two years at), almost everyone is the same age. If you’re a freshman you’re 18 or 19. And very few people are over thirty. Continuing education is not a priority, it’s about getting information to the new generation.

In almost every day class, there will be someone in the ballpark of 50 years old. In one case, it was the mother of another student- they were taking the class together. The two evening class I’ve taken skew way towards greybeards. In public speaking, four or so of the initial group were over forty. And since one can gain prerequisites at junior college for graduate education, there are plenty of people in their mid 20s planning to become a nurse or go into graduate science.

Overall, a junior college is a place where many different agenda exist at the same time. 19 year olds studying to get into University of California branch. 25 year olds looking for credits to get into grad school. 35 year olds attempting to make a change to a better and more rewarding job. And 55 year olds maybe just curious about the subject matter.

Author: AJM

Writer, sociologist, Unitarian Universalist.

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