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
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