August 23, 2002

First Person

The Pain and Pride of Community College

By Elizabeth Gonzalez
PACIFIC NEWS SERVICE

After headaches, tears and too many sleepless nights, I have a piece of paper that says I’m of the “learned.”

Well, almost. I graduated from Evergreen Valley College in San Jose, or what my friends and I call UC Evergreen to give its name some weight. Graduating from community college is a bit strange, because it’s only supposed to be part of your education — a preparation for a “real” four-year college. But community college is not just a phase. It is a unique school experience that is redefining higher education.

For me, community college is where I came to value school. And I’m not alone. In the next decade, community colleges are expected to assume about 75 percent of post-high school enrollment, according to a report by the California Postsecondary Education Commission.

Even with so many students attending community college, we enrollees aren’t supposed to be proud of it. When we’re asked what school we go to, the usual answer is, “I’m at community college, uh for right now,” or “I go to a junior college, but I’m transferring.” The idea seems to be, get out quickly without being seen.

Two weeks before graduating, I participated in an intimate celebration as part of a program that focuses on the academic success of Latino students at Evergreen.

Looking around, I saw about 15 students who are becoming nurses, teachers, auto mechanics, and computer technicians without going to a four-year school. I also saw how empty the auditorium was. I thought of how not even half of my high school friends are still in school. For a few, it was a personal choice — they just didn’t want anything more to do with school. But for the majority, it was other circumstances. There has to be someone or something supporting your educational efforts. I am able to go to school because I want to go, and because I have the encouragement of my parents.

When my friends didn’t find this support from their family or workplaces they had to quit. One friend was discouraged by her parents, who thought she was wasting her time with school. Wanting to see fast results, they put her through computer training school, believing she would get a good job like her older sister. But the school she attended never found her a job and after spending thousands of dollars, she got a job with her aunt — something she could have had in the first place. Another friend had no financial support from her parents. She found a part-time job, which made it much more difficult to focus on school. When she took another job, she decided to leave school for a while. She hasn’t been back since.

At times, I feel the pressure of the world because I’m in school when so many are not. I felt that weight the other day as I was leaving my brother’s house. He was talking about life and success and saying he would help me in any way he could — all I had to do was ask. As I was getting into the car to leave, I heard him say: “Liz has a different life. The life I could have had, but I don’t have the discipline.” Then, looking at me, he added, “And it’s funny — mine is the easy one and yours is the hard one.”

I didn’t know what to say and though I shouldn’t have felt guilty for being able to go to school, I did. I never felt so great a difference between us. He’s 10 years older, has a family, makes good money, and is about to move from an East side home to the West side, with a swimming pool and all. But he has not yet gotten a formal education. I know it’s not resentment or envy that I feel from him. It’s just a difference that separates us in some way.

These confusing feelings of being apart from the real world and close to it at the same time are part of what community college is about. Many students are the only ones going to school among their family and friends.

When it was my turn to speak at my graduation ceremony, I decided to do it in Spanish: “Todo lo que hago es para ustedes, mi familia, y para la raza bella de piel morena.” I told my family that everything I do is for them and for the beautiful, brown-skinned people, even if they don’t know it and perhaps never will. To get an education just for me would be selfish in a world where, for many, education is a luxury.

Gonzales has just begun her junior year at Mills College in Oakland, Calif. She writes for Silicon Valley DeBug (www.siliconvalleydebug.com), the voice of young workers, writers and artists in Silicon Valley. She can be emailed at: (svdebug@pacificnews.org).

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