Two years ago, I cried on the steps of De Anza College. I felt ashamed by the realization that I was a part of the single-digit percentage of Cupertino students who ended up going to community college.
My internalization of this stigma knew no bounds — I would hide my face when walking past my local high school. I convinced myself that community college students were less intelligent, lazy and without direction in life. I had already experienced mental health issues for most of my life. But, the perverse stigma of community college, largely perpetuated by affluent, helicopter-parented students I went to high school with, only made the problem worse. Copious amounts of antidepressants and caffeine became my new bread and butter.
That stereotype collapsed once I expanded my social circles and became integrated into the CC microcosm. The disheartening stories of my new friends made it clear that the very existence of the community college and transfer process represents a perturbing degree of inequality.
For me, money suddenly felt increasingly short-supplied, although I admittedly still enjoyed financial security. My dad made enough on paper to exclude me from financial aid, but unforeseen complications ensured that there was still not enough to pay tuition. Coupled with my attenuating grip over my happiness, I knew I had no choice but to cancel my SIR to UC Santa Barbara less than a month before classes started.
Yet, the circumstances for why many others embark down the transfer route are often far worse.
A quick glance at UC Berkeley’s data makes this very clear. Nearly half of transfer students are the first in their family to go to college, compared to 20 percent of incoming freshman. While about half of freshmen reported a household income above $125,000 or more, only 15 percent of new transfers fit the same bill, with 51 percent of transfers earning less than $50,000. As my fellow hip and happening millennials would say: the struggle is real.
My community college is situated in the heart of Apple’s suburban, corporate utopia — Cupertino, but zip codes tell a story of unbelievable disparity. Only four percent of De Anza students actually reside in Cupertino, whereas 51 percent pool from San Jose, mostly from the east side, where the median income is roughly half of Cupertino’s. Far too many students there are expected to perform well in classes while simultaneously calling their car or a friend’s couch their home.
The heavily subsidized system of affordable community college exists to remedy this gap, making the entire system very political by nature. The fundamental purpose of the transfer process is far too often overpowered by an elitist narrative that says that the typical four-year college route is the best way to achieve academic and career success.
Yet, had I not gone through the transfer process, I would have concurred that community college is simple a safety mechanism for the apathetic, or a roadblock in climbing the ladder.
Two years later, I would find myself crying on De Anza’s steps once again, but this time the stakes were entirely different. It was my community college’s special graduation for civically engaged students. I was preparing to start at the world’s best public university, but all I could think about was how much I was leaving behind. Sure, my professors weren’t celebrities given fat, top-dollar research grants, but my immersion with the community gave me a valuable wake-up call that all students should recognize.
The socioeconomic disparity between the transfer community and other UC Berkeley students will not simply disappear by collectively embracing a cartoonified Oski. Walking through Sproul, I hear UC Berkeley students vying for the most selective internships and post-graduation opportunities. Back at De Anza, few students have a LinkedIn or stress over the fonts and spacing of their resume: most community college students just want to make sure they have the opportunity to go to college, period.