My View

How Community College Was More Enriching Than Going to Yale

A Peru native explains how the inclusive community-college system strengthened her on her way to an Ivy League degree.

Nathalie Alegre is an organizer for ALIGN, the Alliance for a Greater New York.
National Journal
Nathalie Alegre
See more stories about...
Nathalie Alegre
Feb. 9, 2014, 11:55 p.m.

New friends who first learn of my story as an un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rant and even­tu­al Ivy League gradu­ate are quick to as­sume that it was Yale that provided the most mean­ing­ful ex­per­i­ence of my life thus far. Truth­fully, it was my two years as a com­munity-col­lege stu­dent that proved most en­rich­ing.

Shar­ing classrooms with ded­ic­ated stu­dents from di­verse so­cioeco­nom­ic back­grounds — but mostly from low-in­come and poor fam­il­ies — pro­foundly shaped my un­der­stand­ing of the world and of the role I wanted to have in chan­ging it.

When I was 16, my fam­ily emig­rated from un­em­ploy­ment-rid­den Peru to Miami. By the time my high school gradu­ation came around, my par­ents had spent a couple of years toil­ing in min­im­um-wage ser­vice jobs. I had ex­celled aca­dem­ic­ally. But like many young Dream­ers, I lacked a leg­al status that would al­low me to ac­cess gov­ern­ment-sponsored fin­an­cial aid. Giv­en my fam­ily’s in­come, a four-year col­lege simply was not an op­tion.

I later learned about mer­it-based schol­ar­ships and how some private uni­versit­ies, such as Yale, of­fer gen­er­ous aid to high-per­form­ing, low-in­come stu­dents like me. At the time, however, I was un­aware. My friends and fam­ily lacked the know-how, and my high school coun­selor failed to provide this cru­cial in­form­a­tion. Moreover, I was ex­tremely scared of openly dis­cuss­ing my doc­u­ment­a­tion status.

With no oth­er op­tions, I en­rolled in my loc­al com­munity col­lege in 2004. To my de­light, Miami Dade Col­lege was full of en­thu­si­ast­ic stu­dents of all ages, for whom go­ing dir­ectly to a four-year col­lege was not the best choice. Most chose Miami Dade be­cause it was the most af­ford­able path to a de­gree. These in­cluded friends who did not have the money or a fam­ily on whom to rely for sup­port. MDC’s Hon­ors Col­lege was a good pro­gram for high-achiev­ing stu­dents who could have gone away to a four-year school but who needed to stay close to home, like the many friends who were the main care­takers of men­tally ill or older re­l­at­ives.

The flex­ible class sched­ules and wide ar­ray of con­tinu­ing edu­ca­tion and tech­nic­al pro­grams at MDC at­trac­ted those who bal­anced stu­dent life with a full-time job or fam­ily re­spons­ib­il­it­ies, like many older class­mates who were single par­ents. Some stu­dents just needed a step­ping stone for a more sol­id aca­dem­ic fu­ture. Many, like me, simply did not know they had oth­er op­tions.

All in all, com­munity col­leges in the United States serve a very non­tra­di­tion­al stu­dent pop­u­la­tion: largely poor, and largely of col­or. Ac­cord­ing to a gov­ern­ment re­port, 44 per­cent of stu­dents with fam­ily in­comes of less than $25,000 per year at­tend com­munity col­leges as their first post­sec­ond­ary in­sti­tu­tion, and 50 per­cent of His­pan­ic stu­dents and 31 per­cent of Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans start at a com­munity col­lege). The mul­ti­pli­city of per­spect­ives found in this type of en­vir­on­ment can be a cata­lyst for growth.

My aca­dem­ic ex­per­i­ence was re­mark­ably en­riched by the depth of life ex­per­i­ence that dis­ad­vant­aged stu­dents brought to the classroom and to cam­pus. In course­work, my col­leagues were bright, well in­formed, hard­work­ing, and en­gaged. I was moved by their per­son­al drive, as I knew many had grown up in un­der­fun­ded pub­lic schools and oth­er en­vir­on­ments that did not em­phas­ize or sup­port aca­dem­ic per­form­ance. But I was more in­spired by their wis­dom — the kind that does not come from books or classes, but from per­sever­ing through hard­ship.

To be clear, I found my classes in com­munity col­lege just as rig­or­ous and stim­u­lat­ing as those I took at Yale. And, more of­ten than not, I felt that my com­munity-col­lege pro­fess­ors truly loved teach­ing and pri­or­it­ized be­ing ac­cess­ible to their stu­dents. I later real­ized that they could de­vote more fully to their pro­fes­sion be­cause they did not suf­fer the same pres­sures to con­duct re­search or pub­lish pa­pers as pro­fess­ors in lar­ger uni­versit­ies.

When I trans­ferred to Yale as a ju­ni­or, I was struck by the sharp con­trast between the struggles of my com­munity-col­lege class­mates — and my own — and the re­l­at­ive priv­ilege of Yale stu­dents. Don’t get me wrong, I val­ued my Yale edu­ca­tion: the high-qual­ity cur­riculum, bril­liant pro­fess­ors, vi­brant cam­pus activ­it­ies, and op­por­tun­it­ies for stu­dent travel. But I got the sense that few people at Yale fully real­ized what it means to be dis­ad­vant­aged in Amer­ica. I kept think­ing about all my fel­low com­munity-col­lege class­mates who would have thrived at Yale and be­nefited from the prestige as­so­ci­ated with an Ivy League de­gree, had they been giv­en the chance.

My ex­per­i­ence made me re­flect deeply on in­equal­ity and op­por­tun­ity in this coun­try, which led me to even­tu­ally find my call­ing as a com­munity or­gan­izer and ad­voc­ate for eco­nom­ic justice. In this sense, al­though I went to com­munity col­lege as a last re­sort, I gained more than I ever ex­pec­ted.

Com­munity col­leges can foster pro­found per­son­al growth and play a vi­tal role in of­fer­ing high-qual­ity edu­ca­tion­al op­por­tun­it­ies to the dis­ad­vant­aged. Be­cause of these reas­ons, we must en­sure that em­ploy­ers un­der­stand the full value of a com­munity-col­lege de­gree when mak­ing hir­ing de­cisions. And we must not only pre­serve, but en­hance, in­vest­ment in our na­tion’s com­munity col­leges.

‘MY VIEW’ OF THE NEXT AMER­ICA

What We're Following See More »
PROCEDURES NOT FOLLOWED
Trump Not on Ballot in Minnesota
3 days ago
THE LATEST
MOB RULE?
Trump on Immigration: ‘I Don’t Know, You Tell Me’
3 days ago
THE LATEST

Perhaps Donald Trump can take a plebiscite to solve this whole messy immigration thing. At a Fox News town hall with Sean Hannity last night, Trump essentially admitted he's "stumped," turning to the audience and asking: “Can we go through a process or do you think they have to get out? Tell me, I mean, I don’t know, you tell me.”

Source:
BIG CHANGE FROM WHEN HE SELF-FINANCED
Trump Enriching His Businesses with Donor Money
5 days ago
WHY WE CARE

Donald Trump "nearly quintupled the monthly rent his presidential campaign pays for its headquarters at Trump Tower to $169,758 in July, when he was raising funds from donors, compared with March, when he was self-funding his campaign." A campaign spokesman "said the increased office space was needed to accommodate an anticipated increase in employees," but the campaign's paid staff has actually dipped by about 25 since March. The campaign has also paid his golf courses and restaurants about $260,000 since mid-May.

Source:
QUESTIONS OVER IMMIGRATION POLICY
Trump Cancels Rallies
5 days ago
THE LATEST

Donald Trump probably isn't taking seriously John Oliver's suggestion that he quit the race. But he has canceled or rescheduled rallies amid questions over his stance on immigration. Trump rescheduled a speech on the topic that he was set to give later this week. Plus, he's also nixed planned rallies in Oregon and Las Vegas this month.

Source:
‘STRATEGY AND MESSAGING’
Sean Hannity Is Also Advising Trump
6 days ago
THE LATEST

Donald Trump's Fox News brain trust keeps growing. After it was revealed that former Fox chief Roger Ailes is informally advising Trump on debate preparation, host Sean Hannity admitted over the weekend that he's also advising Trump on "strategy and messaging." He told the New York Times: “I’m not hiding the fact that I want Donald Trump to be the next president of the United States. I never claimed to be a journalist.”

Source:
×