A mixture of nervousness and excitement overwhelmed me as I drove northbound on the 101 freeway to Santa Barbara City College, or SBCC, from Simi Valley. I was starting on my junior collegiate journey, and from the little research I had done about community college, this journey was supposed to take two years for the average aspiring transfer student.
That average wasn’t going to apply to me.
When I arrived at the apartment where my sister, who was currently a student at SBCC, lived, she gave me a quick tour of the campus and surrounding area. Then she brought me back to the apartment, where I finished unpacking my things. At the end of this long day, I lay back on my bed, letting all the changes sink into me. Suddenly, one of my biggest anxieties that I had managed to push to the bottom of my worry list resurfaced: I needed to find a job.
My first month in Santa Barbara consisted of obsessively searching for any food service or retail job I could get, but finding a job that would be willing to work around my class schedule seemed to be the biggest obstacle. Eventually, I found a job that would allow me to work full time during the summer and part time during the school year at a sandwich shop. But even with the flexibility it offered me, it was still incredibly difficult to work to support myself while trying to be a successful student.
I had no days off from either school or work, and eventually school became an afterthought. Part of me wasn’t in a rush to transfer or set any solid goals because I was too busy enjoying my freedom and I didn’t have an idea of how important academic planning was in community college.
I went to the majority of my classes, but I wasn’t a serious student. In all honesty, I spent my first year at SBCC drinking excessive amounts of alcohol and smoking copious amounts of weed with my roommates and neighbors after class and work. I lived the stereotypical college student life that consisted of partying and going to class hungover, except I wasn’t one of those students who could live the party life and still do well in their classes. The two-year timeline that I had worked out with my adviser in my first semester at SBCC was out of sight and out of mind.
It wasn’t until halfway through my second year at community college that I actually began to take my time at SBCC seriously. My poor grades from high school followed me to community college, where I was tested and then placed into one of the lowest math classes. This meant I would have a lot of catching up to do in order to fulfill the necessary requirements to transfer, and the pressure to transfer abruptly sank in. I couldn’t take more than 12 units a semester because I could hardly handle the minimum course load on top of working to support myself. And taking classes during the summer was out of the question because I worked full time during the summer to save money for the fall and spring semesters.
The amount of time I ended up spending at community college was a sore subject for me. Frankly, I was embarrassed about how long I took to transfer when so many of the people I went to high school with had already received their bachelor’s degrees. During those three-plus years, I felt like I had spent the majority of my time working to pay my hilariously expensive rent, only to be left with a few hundred dollars for food and other bills, since financial aid wasn’t enough for all my expenses. When I encountered other students who didn’t have to work to support themselves, I thought to myself, “If that was me, I would have been done by now.”
The two-year average didn’t apply to me, and it doesn’t apply to many other community college students. These are students who are also balancing work to keep roofs over their heads (and maybe even their family’s heads) and handling a variety of other responsibilities that often force them to make school a second priority. Many students come to community college with the disadvantage of having to start at the lowest levels of English and math courses because they’re not prepared for college-level classes. Some students stay at community college for more than two years because the majors they choose have a strenuous number of requirements that cannot be fulfilled in four semesters and summer classes.
It would have been easier on me if I would have stayed in my hometown and gone to the local community college. But if I had the chance to go back and change my decision, I wouldn’t. My decision allowed me to become self-reliant and grow as a person. Most importantly, it made me realize that I can’t compare myself and my experience to others or statistical averages. I realized that it didn’t matter how long it took me to transfer — what mattered was steadily working toward my goal without giving up.
Mixty Espinoza writes the Friday column on her experience as a first-generation transfer student. Contact her at [email protected]