In my high school art class, the teacher would compliment good work by saying, “You’ll go to a great college!” Meanwhile, “You’ll end up at City College” was a biting criticism, doled out whenever someone forgot their notes or didn’t know the answer when called on. There, community college represented failure and embarrassment.
Like most other honors classes at my school, this class was predominantly white, with a few BIPOC sprinkled in like a garnish. Most of my teachers were also white and prone to decorating their classroom walls with advertisement posters that featured picturesque views of university campuses.
So, it doesn’t come as a surprise that I felt pressure to attend a four-year university fresh out of high school. As a person of color surrounded by high-achieving, white peers, I felt like I had something to prove.
However, by senior year, I realized that there was no way I could afford a four-year college and decided to go the alternate route. My peers and educators gave me strange looks when I told them and wondered where I’d messed up. I felt defeated about community college before I even started going.
People at my school treated admission decisions like Judgement Day. Some would even order their college name sweatshirts with overnight shipping so they could wear them the next day after being admitted. College gear became a status symbol and a method of communicating one’s place on the prestige hierarchy.
Not once, however, did I see on campus a sweater or water bottle or baseball cap with the name of a community college branded across it. I and my fellow peers who would be attending community college in the fall collectively burrowed a bit deeper into our well-worn Point Loma High School hoodies.
The harm caused by this illusion of superiority doesn’t simply end when the last bell rings. Rather, it followed us to our respective colleges, resulting in widespread prejudice against transfer students.
At the Transfer Center, I overheard a student talking about seeing posts on a UC Berkeley Facebook page that complain about how unfair it is that transfers ultimately receive the same degree as freshman admits. But in their attempt to call attention to the supposed unfairness of transferring, they failed to realize that the field was never even to begin with. They don’t recognize the institutional racism that’s deeply embedded in our education system.
The SAT, for example, was created for the purpose of proving white people’s supposed intellectual superiority, not to mention that SAT scores are highly influenced by race, ethnicity and income. Requirements such as this make higher education less accessible for marginalized, low-income students who lack traditional systems of support. It is no secret that the college admissions game favors those who come from privileged backgrounds and have parents who pay for test prep tutors, drive their children to extracurricular activities and email teachers to ask for extensions.
One afternoon, I was hanging out with a friend in their upper-class, white neighborhood. We were outside, exchanging polite small talk with a neighbor. We mentioned that it was our first year in college and he asked what schools we go to. My friend said the name of their university and received a congratulatory remark. But when I answered with “San Diego City College,” the man responded with, “And what do you plan to do with that community college education?”
Unnerved by the patronizing tone, I mumbled something vague about transferring and prerequisites before my friend changed the topic.
About a year later, I was at the same friend’s house for some sort of family-and-friend gathering. A few of my friend’s relatives asked me the customary what-college-do-you-go-to question. I answered with, “I go to City College and I’m transferring to UC Berkeley in the fall.”
This time, the response was different, punctuated by congratulations and grins and shoulder-claps. I was suddenly interesting and impressive. People were eager to shower me with college advice despite the fact that I had been in college for nearly two years by that time.
I was just as shocked by the response as last time but for a different reason. I was still a community college student, still the same person I was before the acceptance email arrived.
I glanced around and realized I was the only person of color in the room. Amid the group of educated, middle-class white people chattering about what a great school UC Berkeley is and what a gorgeous campus it has, I felt alone. With the exception of my mom and sister, my family lived in Ukraine and Afghanistan. None of them knew what UC Berkeley was. I had never been to the campus because I didn’t have a car or parents who understood the concept of college tours. Though I was standing in the same room as my friend and their relatives, I felt as if we were worlds apart.
After starting at UC Berkeley, I’ve come to recognize this feeling as a concoction of culture shock and imposter syndrome. Transferring from a community college that qualified as a Hispanic-serving institution and where I was surrounded by peers who looked like me, it took some time for me to adjust to UC Berkeley. During my first few months, I would sometimes loiter around the entrance to Doe Library, feeling in equal parts dwarfed and awed as it loomed above me, anxiously questioning whether I really belonged among these marble corridors and Corinthian columns.
I didn’t know whether it was acceptable to mention that I’m a transfer right away whenever I introduced myself. As proud as I am of my transfer identity, there was an initial pinprick of fear that made me wonder whether knowing that I transferred from a community college would make people see me differently.
But as I started going to lectures and joined clubs and activities on campus, I found myself constantly meeting other transfers. Though it is small, the UC Berkeley transfer community is tightknit and proud. I remember walking into my first discussion section and seeing a fellow transfer wearing a San Diego City College baseball hat. Suddenly, I knew I belonged here.
Even now, in my third semester, I still break into a grin every time I hear someone say, “I’m a transfer, too!” It never gets old. It reminds us that, despite our nontraditional backgrounds, we are not alone.
Arina Stadnyk writes the Friday column on being a person of color at UC Berkeley. Contact her at [email protected]