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Thriving at a community college

Don’t let your two short years stop you from getting involved at your school

Thriving at a community college

I was picking up my sister from high school for a doctor’s appointment when I ran into a former teacher. I’d graduated less than a year before, and he asked what I was up to. I told him I was starting out at community college. His response: “Really?” he said. “What a shame.”

About half my graduating class started at Diablo Valley College. Four years later, some are still at DVC, hopping from major to major or trapped by complacency. Some have transferred to four-year universities. Others quit after realizing college wasn’t for them. And some, like me, took 15+ units per semester and transferred out as quickly as possible.

Community college often gets a bad rap. Most people assume JCs are a “last resort” or consolation prize for those who didn’t have the GPA for “real” college. But most people don’t realize attending community college is cash clever. Thanks to my two years at DVC — and my parents — I’m getting my bachelor’s in four years, and debt-free (with a 3.9 cumulative GPA). 

Here are a few tips to help you transfer on time, under budget, and without missing any milestone college experiences:


Pick a major, pursue an interest

The quickest way to get through community college is to choose a major. Some community college students aren’t sure what they want to do. But this problem is solvable: pursue your passion. If you love writing, major in English, even if it won’t make you money. Studying accounting just because it might get you a job could leave you miserable — which will make you lose interest in school. This can lead to poor grades, extra semesters, or not finishing at all. 

Switching majors at community college isn’t necessarily a waste of time, either. Because you’re working on general education, you can take a lower-division major-related criminology course, for example, that will still transfer as your basic social-science course, even if you switch from sociology to music. 

If you’re still unsure of your major, find a job or volunteer in your field. In high school, I volunteered at a local hospital because I was interested in nursing. I learned quickly that cleaning out bedpans and administering shots was not for me. If you’re interested in journalism, join the school newspaper; if teaching, work as an after-school tutor. This is an easy, resume-friendly way to discover if your ideal job is the right job. 


Be your own academic advisor

Community college academic advisors and transfer counselors meet with thousands of students during the academic year — about articulation agreement degree requirements, course schedules, and the transfer requirements of any college in the nation (there are thousands). In short, their job is impossible. And this amount of work means they can’t help everyone as much as they’d like to. So, take your academic career into your own hands. 

Assuming you’ve chosen a major, make a list of schools you are considering. Then, research the basic transfer courses required by both your community college and those schools. Community colleges have printable spreadsheets online that detail transfer course requirements. If you don’t have a major, these spreadsheets are still handy — they cover all the basic general education classes and are not major-specific. Last, map out every semester with the exact classes you will need to transfer — and have back-up classes listed, just in case.


Exceed expectations

Some students get “stuck” at community college because, well, they’re lazy. DVC is a hub for pre-Berkeley and pre-Stanford transfers, so it has more students than it can handle. Getting into classes can be difficult — but it isn’t impossible. It might mean suffering through that 8 a.m. statistics class or taking general chemistry instead of human biology — suck it up and just do it. While other students complain they can’t get the classes they need and have to catch up in summer or with an extra semester, you’ll transfer on time because you did what had to be done. 

This is also assuming you go to class, which is another important tip. Don’t think you’ll try harder at a four-year university because “that’s when it will matter.” Establish good habits now, otherwise you’ll get a D in theater appreciation and won’t be able to transfer — or you’ll transfer only to find that school gets harder as the course numbers climb.    

My advice: take more than the recommended number of credits per semester to guarantee transferring on time. Even though DVC considers 12 units a “full load,” transferring in two years requires a student take at least 15 units each semester. That’s what I did to be proactive — and safe. Don’t slack off the first couple of semesters and assume you’ll catch up later. You won’t. Front-load your first few semesters. You’ll be thankful for the lighter course load your final semester when you’re filling out those time-consuming transfer applications. 

Lastly: STAND OUT. Be the student every teacher remembers —in a good way. At community college, classes are typically smaller. If you excel in your work, turn everything in on time, participate in class, and take advantage of office hours, teachers will notice, and this has its advantages. Last semester, when I needed academic references for job applications, I sent a few emails and made a few calls to my former community college professors. Each remembered me and gave me glowing recommendations, because I had earned their respect in class. Now I have a robust list of references to give any future employer. 


Enjoy the NOW

Don’t let the negative perception of community college taint your enjoyment of the perks that come with it.

First, enjoy knowing you’re saving a ton of money. When I calculated the cost of my two years at DVC (units, textbooks, and small fees like parking), it averaged to about the same amount as a single three-unit course at my current private university (about $2,800). In other words, I did 60 units at DVC for roughly the price of one course at my university. And, because I didn’t move away for school, I continued working as a hostess at The Old Spaghetti Factory. I was also more marketable for a second summer job because I wasn’t leaving for college in three months. The low cost of community college, living at home, and working two jobs allowed me to save up money for post-college living. 

Second, don’t be an island — make friends, join study groups! Community college may seem lonely, but if you spend time with people outside class, it can be even more fun than living in a dorm (I’ve done both). Find out your lab partner’s favorite restaurant or coffee shop and ask if he or she wants to study there for your physics midterm. Or if your classmate works at the rock climbing gym down the street, get together for a Saturday afternoon climb. 

Finally, and most importantly, enjoy the little bit of time you have left at home with your family. If transferring has taught me anything, it’s that I took for granted sitting around the table with my family for dinner every night, going to my sister’s choir concerts, and taking Saturday morning walks with my mom. Enjoy the extra time at home. Pull weeds with your dad. Get a manicure with your mom. Cheer on your brother’s basketball team — then take them out for pizza when they win. 


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