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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.
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Nathalie Alegre
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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.

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