Downward and onward


When I started at Los Angeles Pierce College, a community college in the San Fernando Valley, I spent a lot of time waiting in line.

I waited in line to submit the proper identification so I could get a student ID. I waited in line to get “add slips” from teachers and then I waited in line to turn them in so I could register for classes. I waited in line to enter and exit the crowded parking lot each day. I waited in line to pee in between classes.

It’s an overtaxed system serving everyone and their actual mom.

Unlike my private school experience, where the mostly 18- to 22-year-old kids talked about diversity with an almost hysterical strain, community college was plainly composed of a real heterogenous mix of people. Diversity, the ever elusive goal of elite institutions, was Pierce’s effortless forté.

In community college, there were students of all sorts of racial and ethnic backgrounds. Students spoke English, Farsi, Spanish, Chinese, Armenian and Russian. There were senior citizens fresh into retirement and teenagers still in high school, hoping to impress on their college applications. There were students with physical handicaps, learning disabilities and speech impediments. There were rich kids driving BMWs and low-income students receiving federal aid.

If you’re looking for the à la mode buzzwords elite schools strive for — diversity, openness, inclusivity — drop out and go to community college. Seriously.

Class offerings, too, were more plentiful than I had previously seen at Northwestern, including subjects like addiction studies, real estate and welding. I stuck to the more traditional courses because I was mainly there to rack up credits I could use as a transfer student. Though some of my peers were working toward an associate degree as their end goal, most seemed eager to transfer as well.

In the two semesters I was at Pierce, I took broadcasting, English, environmental studies, oceanography, public speaking, psychology, statistics and women’s history. This is the only list of classes I can rattle off by memory from any of the colleges I’ve attended. Why? Because it’s the one school where I really remember what I learned.

I’ve definitely had memorable professors from Northwestern, Claremont McKenna and, now, UC Berkeley, and I do remember bits and pieces from the classes they taught. But those professors expected me to read hundreds of pages a week, take two-hour-long exams on huge amounts of information and synthesize dozens of studies in 20-page research papers.

I crammed for those classes, genuinely eager to learn, but in order to pass I had to expel the information I had just committed to memory in order to make room for another semester of “learning.”

Pierce College was more reasonable in its course load. Teachers assigned between 10 to 20 pages of reading per class. Some exams were open-note, while others employed the “no dubble bubble rule,” a multiple choice gift in which two of the same letter cannot appear immediately after each other. Essays were rarely assigned, and when they were they rarely required extensive research.

To be fair, there is value in a voluminous workload. It prepares students for the many occupations they hope to hold. As a current student in the summer journalism minor, I understand why I am being faced with a high level of rigor. The news cycle is not going to slow down just because I can’t remember what absurd truth-bending maneuver Sean Spicer employed yesterday. If a story pops up, I have to be able to do research quickly and effectively so I am armed with interview question ideas moments later. Truly, I get it.

However, if the goal is to learn for the long-term, heavy workloads are not a solution. So-called “easy” Pierce College made me a smarter, more well-informed person.

For example, I can remember my oceanography teacher, whose front tooth once fell out mid-lecture, explaining thermohaline circulation in such a simple manner that I gleefully, if not obnoxiously, explain it to people who have absolutely no interest in learning about thermohaline circulation.

I can also remember the unit on Fannie Lou Hamer, voting rights activist and African-American icon, from my women’s history class. In my high school lessons, Hamer was flagrantly cut out of history and it’s because of Pierce that I learned her story.

Community college was not perfect. I had a lewd English teacher who brazenly told the whole class about the nature of his wife’s lactating breasts. Some buildings on the campus were dilapidated and multimedia resources were hard to come by. Instructors could only offer so much guidance with the number of students they taught.

However, it is fair to say that I underestimated community college. I thought Pierce would be a placeholder school where I could gather units like the college credit miser I am. As it turns out, I learned, I made friends and I felt at home. Isn’t that what every undergrad wants from their university experience?

Samantha writes the Friday column on undergraduate myths. Contact her at [email protected].