My college career began with remedial courses at a community college and ended four years later with a bachelor’s degree from Cornell University.
This makes people flinch. But we all have an unexpected flame inside of ourselves waiting to be lit. I always believed this to be true. Others did not, and justifiably so, as my grades in high school were inconsistent. The marks on my report card followed the waves of my depression.
President Obama’s proposal to expand access to community colleges has many asking why the country should focus on students with the odds against them. I offer my story as one to think about amid this debate.
When I was a high school senior, expensive private colleges seemed unrealistic and only small, flimsy envelopes arrived from four-year state colleges. I scanned the website of Raritan Valley Community College, remembering that a high-achieving friend had just enrolled. That was enough to convince me to apply.
I received a startling text from my aunt after announcing my decision to attend Raritan Valley. “You're going to fail out and ruin your life," read the message. My aunt knew the stereotypes of community college too well. Those who attend two-year schools are thought to be defeatist, uninspired, and lacking in follow-through, according to the stereotype. My parents started community college with the intention of earning a degree, but walked away empty-handed.
Feeling perplexed, I quickly wrote back, “Students transfer from community colleges into top schools like Pepperdine and Syracuse all of the time! There's also an honors society. Some people even get full scholarships. I just need to get above a 3.5.”
"That's never going to happen,” read the message that flashed across the screen of my phone. I was disappointed. She feared that if I went to community college I would derail, forfeiting all hopes for a successful life.
For me, forfeiting wasn’t an option. The eccentric and quick-witted professors, personable and encouraging nature of the college president, and wealth of opportunities to explore made Raritan Valley Community College a well-kept secret that I was fortunate enough to discover.
My mathematics professor enlightened our class with her first lesson. “To be fully proficient in any subject,” she said, “studying an additional six to nine hours each week is essential.” I went home and immediately reorganized my schedule to accommodate this formula for mastery.
The tutoring center was my sanctuary. Although passes to the center were limited, I still managed to convince my professor to give me a few extra. I treated them like golden tickets, rejoicing as I danced down the hallway to book my appointment. In the end, my professor’s ultimate study formula proved to be correct. The high-achieving student within me finally took form.
I was no longer ashamed of not having it all together in high school. I belonged in this land of lost toys. The students I interacted with varied in age. They shared identical challenges but told unfamiliar stories. Community colleges accept more than just everyone’s application. Community colleges welcome all students and support them in their pursuit to improve their lives with education. There’s a reason no other academic institution is more accepting.
I applied to Cornell University with my fingers crossed. When I was accepted and decided to major in communication, I knew the odds were still against me. I didn’t anticipate that community college would lead me to graduating from one of the most competitive universities in the world. However, the tenacity I gained over those two years enabled me to face the odds and flourish.
Now, I share the stories of academically struggling children from low-income neighborhoods for the education nonprofit Practice Makes Perfect. We accept all types of scholars because we know they can achieve academic success through our five-week summer education programs. Learning in an environment that promotes acceptance, whether a summer program or a local community college, can strengthen a weak flame into becoming an invincible fire.
Please think about my story when you think about why community colleges matter – in the decisions of high school guidance counselors, state legislators who allocate funds, and members of Congress who now have a unique opportunity to make a difference.
Casey Randazzo is communication coordinator for Practice Makes Perfect, an intergenerational program that matches struggling elementary and middle school students with high-achieving middle and high school students with the supervision of college interns and expert teachers for an intensive academic summer program. She studied communication at Raritan Valley Community College and received her bachelor’s degree from Cornell University in 2013.
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