Debunking the Myths About Community College

Laura Siko
September 26, 2013

My reason for choosing to pursue a career in higher education is clear: I believe that a college degree should be accessible and affordable to anyone motivated to pursue a post-secondary education.

Despite being the daughter of two lower-middle class factory workers who were not privy to college study themselves, it never occurred to me that I would not continue my education after high school. I didn’t think about how I would pay for college, or what the return on my investment would be in the long run. I simply knew that I loved school; the reading, the researching, the late night studying, and the challenge of earning a perfect grade.

While I never planned on working at a community colleges, I was always drawn to the idea of it. Born and raised in a small town, I have witnessed firsthand the positive effects a strategically placed community college can have on the population.

I have watched single mothers earn a nursing degree, subsequently doubling their household income with just one ‘piece of paper’. I have seen young adults, who never thought they could afford college, graduate and matriculate to four year universities with full scholarships. On the contrary, I have also worked with students destined by their parents for the greatness of high-end private schools, only to decide their true passion lies within the trades.

Community colleges are a starting block for some, a second chance for many, and a saving grace for others.

Community colleges are a starting block for some, a second chance for many, and a saving grace for others.

Inside a community college classroom

A community college classroom is anything but homogenous, which means that classroom instructors must be acutely aware of who their students are in order to teach effectively. A community college classroom may have students not yet old enough to drive (enrolled in high school dual enrollment programs) and students who identify their first car as a 1957 Oldsmobile.

Continuing the car references, take a look in the parking lot and you’ll see vehicles ranging from barely-passed-inspection to high-end luxury; Contrary to common myths, not all community college students are ‘poor.’ Some students are first generation college students, while others hold credentials or degrees from four-year colleges or universities. In fact, I once advised a cohort of students in a community college RN program, of which 20% had a bachelor’s degree or higher.

Perhaps the most notable distinction between students is the life-experience factor. Some students struggle to make ends meet, living paycheck to paycheck, taking care of families, household bills, and working two jobs to get by. Others seem to have things easier, relying on parents for financial support or living a carefree single lifestyle. Some come to class with baggage from failed relationships, loss, and a jaded cynicism. Others come to class with bright eyes and a youthful naivety. Some students come to class eager to learn, start a career, or transfer to their dream school, while others enroll because their parents’ ultimatum was “school or job.”  This is what makes a community college classroom diverse, even more than skin color or bank account balance.

A career in community college

As an administrator, I try to reflect on the positive experiences I had in my undergraduate studies, and learn from the negative. In my time at Penn State Schuylkill, I was surrounded by wonderful faculty and staff who took an interest in me, supported me, and became lifelong friends and mentors. On the flip side, I can remember every ineffective professor I’ve had, every unpleasant counselor, or unwilling administrator -- and I can learn from what they lacked.

I remember being an introverted freshman -- the first in my family to go to college -- and the accompanying feeling of being completely overwhelmed and unsure where to turn. Because of this experience, I strive to be comforting and positive in my work to those in the same position now.  Even as a graduate student (at another school), I cringe at some of the policies and inconveniences I’m subjected to. It makes me work harder to make life easier for our students.

The daily life of a community college administrator is a delicate balance of managing overarching mission and the daily issues that arise. We aim to put students’ needs first, while still adhering to policy and procedure to keep decisions consistent and fair. We want to help students, but not coddle to the point where they are unable to think critically or self-advocate.

We also maintain a presence in the community to build partnerships and spread the message, but simultaneously look inward to strategically plan our next move. We celebrate student achievements in the morning and deal with disciplinary issues in the afternoon. We keep the facilities clean and attractive, with little to no budget for such activities.

It’s a roller coaster of highs and lows, and each day is more exciting than the last.


Laura Siko

 

Laura Siko is a first generation college graduate and Director of Off-Campus Sites for Northern Virginia Community College. She holds a master's degree in education and is currently pursuing her doctorate. 

 

This blog is part of the joint Demos-SparkAction project, First to Finish College.