A farewell to community college

As tomorrow is my first class at a four-year university, now is a good time to look back and order my memories of community college. In all, I attended two schools over the course of four years- from spring 2010 to spring 2014. There were some small gaps, usually due to my pre-stability mental health, but the path was long and sometimes filled with significant obstacles. Previously, I belonged the group that was able to weather school through raw ability, despite serious inconsistency of effort and poor attendance.

Community college not only set me on a different path, it created a new, better self. I am not a perfect person, a trait I share with everyone else. I am both too critical of myself and others, I use sarcasm as a weapon, there are times where my privilege goes blatantly unchecked. Despite these character flaws, a new worldview has been constructed in the last four years. Diversity is better understood, and appreciated. More time has been spent with people all over the socioeconomic spectrum, leading very different lives. I have more empathy, and am willing to give people the benefit of the doubt.

So, what is community college like, for the many people that never set foot on a campus? It is many things. When the sun is overhead, it is a place for young people to decide if college is right for them, or to put into place a plan for a future transfer. Or perhaps dick around, an attempt like many college students to postpone adulthood indefinitely. When all is dark, it becomes a place where non-traditional students start a new career from scratch. Office admins become case mangers. Baristas become radiology techs. Forty year old men and women from many distant countries learn the stupid, unfair rules of the English language.

Initially, I chose the obvious path for college prep kids- a path that ended at the gates of a liberal arts college. From one white-dominated institution to another. Where ethnic studies is a theory class, devoid of a real-world foundation. After a few months, I dropped out. Four-year college was not right for me. My mental health was inconsistent and not well-managed in the remote town the school was located in. I had no “study hygiene” as I dubbed it, an inability to deal with a demanding academic schedule. What the hell was I doing with my life?

Community college is an excellent place to wrestle with that question. Tuition is cheap, the system is built for those on an extended schedule. And totally unplanned, I fell into the public school system for the first time at nineteen. Failure, by one metric, had turned into valuable opportunity. Latinos comprised the plurality of students, only three in ten were white. Many came from poor backgrounds and a violent childhood. W., who sat next to me in public speaking class, told of the many fights he participated in, as different ethnic gangs brawled in a urban high school. A girl younger than me had to plan an honors seminar around her obligations to her six-year old daughter.

Those next to me in the sociology survey course struggled through language barriers, or had a reading level several grades behind what they needed. Some came to please their parents, others used class to treat an existential fear they had about the future. Every room was filled with (often unstated) chaos.

In popular culture, the junior college is a punchline, depicted as full of burnouts and those too dumb to get into a real school. That scene that introduces Robin Williams’ character in Good Will Hunting comes to mind. The nickname it has, “13th grade” is true in some sense. Attendance is taken fastidiously. In core classes, handholding is present and often expected by the students. Yet some of the most intelligent people I have ever met sat next to me. Many high school students who do not fit into the mould they are placed in participate in “middle college”, where they take college classes alongside their regular work. One girl was accepted to Stanford at 16, but chose junior college because of the poor treatment the school gave her as an underage student. Several went on to Berkeley or UCLA, having saved thousands of dollars by doing their general education here.

Lurking in the shadows is the hidden secret of community college- they provide superior teaching than a top university, at a fraction of the price. Most introductory classes are massive- my parents’ calculus class at Michigan State had over a thousand students. Yet that is impossible at the community college level. No building seats more than 200, and most classrooms sat around fifty or so. Combined with this more intimate learning environment, the professors are devoted solely to teaching. They are more accessible, more invested, and more dedicated than most university professors. An esteemed professor at Berkeley publishes papers and writes books. A community college professor is the one who translates that work and makes it understandable.

Of course, upper division courses are another story. One of the things I longed for were advanced, specific courses. But the comparison here is lower-division, general education. I have my pick of upper division courses, because everything else has been taking care of. There were only four sociology courses available, but they transferred to take care of the four lower-division major courses.

Community, ironically, is absent from a community college. Everyone commutes, many have full-time jobs or kids to deal with. For those with no friends going in, most of my connections were with the faculty. In some sense, community is what you are paying for at a four-year. Student organizations, traditions, spaces to just hang out and talk about the nature of the universe. The library system in a community college district is appalling; any detailed assignment required a trek to the colossal cave system of Green Library at Stanford. Research opportunities exist, but they are narrow in scope. Social sciences are ignored in favor of STEM programs, which have been the source of almost all new funding for the institutions. Few innovative speakers make their way to our theaters.

So both systems have their troubles. There is no school that has top-shelf infrastructure and bottom-barrel tuition costs. Typically there is a trade-off between research opportunities and professors with a focus on teaching. My university has a flat tuition cost per term- to take one class a quarter would be financial suicide. Yet a woman with a serious disability graduated alongside me this spring; both her and her service dog wore the cap. It had taken her seven years to finish.

In some sense, community college is where we start over. Whether you immigrated from Guatemala, or are looking to change careers in middle age, those that come look to build a new, better world.

Fifty-three months passed between my entrance and exit. I volunteered on political campaigns, I Occupied and shut down a port. Afternoons were spent tutoring poor kids. I spent a year serving on a disabilities commission. 2014 was the year I became a semi-professional lunatic, joining other people living with a mental illness to talk about our lives and help fight stigma. Community college was the catalyst. If you come from privilege and little diversity, you have an obligation to seek others with a different story. Diversity may not come to you, you may have to seek it and let its lessons seep in.

At my high school, which was Benedictine, most church services began with the saying- “always we begin again.” Junior college is a place where those words ring true.

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.