In my work as an advisor with the Pathway to the Baccalaureate Program at Northern Virginia Community College, I provide academic advising and support to students who have historically not been completers of higher education. This population includes first-generation students, students with disabilities, undocumented students, and students from low-income backgrounds. One of the reasons I love this work is because I myself was a first-generation student. As a Latina from a low-income background, I remember what it was like to navigate the higher education process. I received an enormous amount of love and support from my friends, family, and mentors, and wanted to give that back. As cliché as it sounds, I wanted to pass those gifts on to another generation of students. What I didn’t anticipate was that this role would change my perception of higher education, and would reinforce my belief that anyone can complete a college degree.
In 2007, I made the decision to switch from a career in crime research to higher education. I realized that the work I was doing was most meaningful when I interacted with community members – I very much enjoyed the personal side of that work. I was given the opportunity to work for a four-year institution, where I managed a program designed to support first-generation college students. I absolutely loved the work, but I wanted to be closer to home. If you know anything about the Washington, D.C. area, you know how much of an impact traffic and commute times can have on quality of life. I am so fortunate to be able to continue this work while also having a reasonable commute.
The students in the Pathway program are truly remarkable. Not only do they face institutional barriers to college completion; they also face life barriers that are truly heartbreaking. This challenged me professionally and personally. I am a firm believer that what happens outside of school and academics can have a significant impact on academic work. However, I realized very quickly that these students faced seemingly insurmountable circumstances. I wondered if I was prepared to assist these students. As I got to know my students (after multiple advising sessions), they began to share their personal stories. Experiences with domestic abuse, divorce, teenage pregnancy, and flight from war-torn countries were commonplace. One in particular stands out. A student wanted to meet with me about having his financial aid restored, and when asked why he lost his aid in the first place, he shared that he and his family had become homeless. They were bouncing from shelter to shelter, and he had no consistent and reliable transportation. I realized that what I was offering these students wasn’t just advice on what courses to take the following semester. I was also advising students on life-altering possibilities. I carry that responsibility with me every day. In addition to constantly learning the most up-to-date information on degree and transfer requirements, I made the decision to enroll in online graduate-level counseling courses. Even with my experience in student affairs and advising, I needed to strengthen the skills required to provide emotional support to these students. On those days when I am feeling burnt out and exhausted, I have a duty to show empathy and patience with each and every student whom I meet.
There is a perception that community college students are those who “slacked off” while in high school, who weren’t motivated, etc. With more than half of undergraduate students in the United States enrolling in community colleges, there is a very real need to change this perception. Many students choose to attend community college because of its cost, schedule flexibility, and the student’s ability to stay close to home. I think this is one of the reasons why I am drawn to work with this student population – these students are viewed as the underdogs, the students who have the odds stacked against them. Having worked with both community college and traditional four-year university students, I see the benefits of an education much more clearly in community college students. Students who achieve an associate’s degree and successfully transfer to a four-year institution not only accomplish this for themselves, they accomplish this for their families and communities.
As a result of my work with this program and this student population, I am strongly considering pursuing my PhD, potentially in community college leadership (but don’t quote me on that). I want to effect change throughout the system, so that students who begin their careers at the community college can be successful in all of their endeavors. I wholeheartedly feel like this is where I belong, and I look forward to continuing to support my students.
This post is part of our #comm_college series, which aims to explore experiences developing community college policies and processes that impact the recruitment, retention, and completion of community college students. What human interest stories do you have of community college student resilience, persistence, and success? What about a stories of transition, challenge, or transformation? A variety of SA pros working in student affairs at a community college will share their insights. For more information, please see Kim Irland’s intro post. Be sure to check out other posts in this series!