For many considering higher education, attending a “big name” four-year academic institution is the desired path. In fact, this experience is a staple of American culture itself. I once shared this desire, truly believing it was the only way to get anywhere in life professionally and academically. But coming from a background of having no education and very few rights, immigrating to the United States, overcoming homelessness and abuse, and working every job I could get in order to get to college – my path was hardly the “traditional” college student’s story.
I had always wanted to pursue higher education, or any education at all. My aim was to study space, a love that started when I was very little living in my motherland in the Caribbean. I had no idea it would even be possible to begin with, and later on I learned that I would have to leave my country to do it.
Once I became a citizen in the U.S., it was clear to me that surviving was a bigger priority than college. I lived on the streets in the U.S. for two years, and I managed to get myself off of them, all while working to save for college. I never let go of my desire to study space.
Yet for all the connections between community colleges and underserved communities, the option to attend one was not even on my radar until I found it myself. I enrolled in a community college in Queens, NY, and earned an associate’s degree with a minor that included administrative training. I had gained so many transferable skills that I could finally get employment above minimum wage and I could start to plan for a four-year institution. Looking back, I’m thankful that I was able to see beyond the veil of bias that surrounds community colleges and realize what an amazing resource they can be for one’s future.
I’m thankful that I was able to see beyond the veil of bias that surrounds community colleges and realize what an amazing resource they can be for one’s future.
Many factors influence an individual’s decision to attend community college. For example, some people have to decide between a full-time education and a full-time job in order to provide for themselves and their families, and community college can bridge this gap. Both time and money are factors in these decisions. People also opt for community colleges for the smaller class sizes, which translate to more individualized help. And in my experience, many educators happened to be amazing at their jobs.
Unfortunately, academics often use community college as a point of judgment – a telling of all sorts of things, such as an individual’s level of accomplishment or lack thereof, their drive, even their intelligence, and how far they will go in certain fields. Elitism and classism drive these assumptions. In reality, community colleges are useful, affordable, and smart steppingstones to four-year institutions. They are places where you can learn technical skills that can be used for certain jobs, as well as gain high-level training that can be transferred if you move onto a four-year institution, like I did.
I’ve been told that I was destined to end up at a community college because of the life I come from. This was meant as an insult, but it didn’t hurt me, because the truth is that I wouldn’t have been able to write the articles I’ve written or do the outreach work I do if it wasn’t for community college – and no one would even know I attended one if I didn’t speak about it. As many people from non-traditional backgrounds and minority groups can tell you, we constantly need to prove that we belong in the academic environment. This becomes truer in highly selective institutions, because a lot of these spaces were not created with us in mind. I don’t know if community colleges were created with people like me in mind, but I know they are underrated.
As many people from non-traditional backgrounds and minority groups can tell you, we constantly need to prove that we belong in the academic environment.
In the competitive world of academia, it is easy to get discouraged when one does not have the accolades that are so valued in this sphere. Just remember that this system was not made for all of us. If you want to enter academia but have concerns about expenses or your grades, or if you aren’t sure what your focus should be yet, starting at a community college can be a good choice for you. Learning how to navigate the system through smaller colleges first can keep you from acquiring massive student loan debt, and give you the room you need to explore what is best for you now and in the future.
It is not about how you start your journey; it is about how you handle your steps along the way, and how far you decide to go. Choosing community college does not mean you’re any less talented or deserving. It means that you have a different perspective, and that you chose the approach that works for you and your future goals.