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The road less traveled: community college and the non-traditional academic path

Each year we invite IB alumni to share their experiences, interests and advice with our global community in the graduate voices series. We welcome Diploma Programme (DP) graduate from Armijo High School, USA, Vincent Blake, who shares why he chose to attend community college and why it might be the right choice for you.

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By Vincent Blake

“At community college, a “traditional path” doesn’t necessarily apply to all students.”

As the day of high school graduation neared, a reporter from our city’s local newspaper visited our campus to interview the IB students who were graduating with “highest honors.” Each of us was asked the run-of-the-mill, high school grad questions: What will you study? What scholarships did you receive? What university will you be attending? Princeton, UC Berkeley, Stanford and MIT were just a few of the elite universities my peers selected for their undergraduate career. My next stop, however, was none other than Solano Community College of Fairfield, California.

I had kept my plans as a personal secret until that moment, for the stigma of “the thirteenth grade” had plagued our competitive, graduating class. The first response I would often receive when I mentioned community college was usually something along the lines of “Well, at least you’ll save a lot of money.” That much was true, but like any millennial with a bachelor’s degree, student loans loom over my head like dark cloud, only growing with interest. Closer to the truth, however, is that community college did far more than save me from (even more) student debt.

Professors with passion

“Because of the smaller class sizes and sense of a local community, these professors naturally incorporate compassion for their students through their education.”

Whether by written letters or Facebook messages, I still keep in touch with the professors I met at community college, more so than those I met at my four-year university. For anyone graduating from high school and looking for a stepping stone or a smoother transition to university, I highly recommend considering community college at the very least. With typically smaller class sizes and campuses, community colleges offer a middle-ground between the intense intimacy of a high school classroom and the often impersonal, overwhelming lecture halls at universities. Throughout my community college experience, the professors made it a point to learn our names, our writing and thinking styles and our educational/career goals.

When I transferred to UCLA for my upper division coursework, the concept of teaching assistants (or TAs) came to me as a shock. Professors would deliver their sermons and scribbled what looked like hieroglyphics on a dated chalk board. They emphasized to us that all inquiries and concerns about the course be directed to one of several TAs. In short, don’t bother the professor. Contrast this with professors at community college who encourage their students to visit their office hours or to even send an email if they’ll be absent. Because of the smaller class sizes and sense of a local community, these professors naturally incorporate compassion for their students through their education (not unlike the aims of the IB Learner Profile, but we’ll save that for a later time).

Major Decisions

First week of school: “Hi, everyone.  My name is Vincent, and I’m a biology major.”

One month later: “Hi, I’m Vincent.  I’m an English major.”

End of fall semester: “Hi, I’m Vincent, and I don’t have a clue.”

Before transferring to a university, I changed my major so many times that everyone in the registrar office knew my name. One of the benefits of studying lower division and general education courses (GEs, for short) at a community college is that one can walk in as an aspiring dentist and then walk out two years later with an associate’s degree in theater arts. The pressure to choose a major and to not deviate from a plan becomes less of a financial burden or means of impressing others.

For those who have yet to realize their passion, community college provides students with the flexibility to sample classes as they complete their general education requirements toward an associate’s degree and/or certificate for university transfer. After enrolling in an introductory film course to satisfy an art GE requirement, I finally discovered what would be my “permanent” major. I no longer felt the obligation to maintain the clichéd façade of “[insert subject here] is my passion!” Finally, higher education made sense.

The “Community” in “Community College”

“Many of my fellow classmates were parents or even grandparents. Others worked full-time and enrolled in evening classes.”

Some may regard college or university as a bubble—a haven-like microcosm of the “real world” rooted in academia. I would argue, however, that such is not the case with community college, for the schools I attended were as “real world” as any academic institution could be. During my community college career, I had the opportunity to tutor students from ages eighteen to sixty-five. Many of my fellow classmates were parents or even grandparents. Others worked full-time and enrolled in evening classes. My peers worked on weekends to pay for their textbooks.

Meanwhile, if adhering to the “traditional” educational path, students pursuing their bachelor’s degree at a four-year university will typically range from eighteen to twenty-two years of age.  At community college, a “traditional path” doesn’t necessarily apply to all students. Each student has their own unique path regardless of their background, experience, age, career, interests, etc.

While community college does offer substantial affordability in comparison to many American public and private universities, those who only view it from a financial perspective fail to see the intimacy and compassion that come from receiving higher education in this particular setting. For anyone nearing high school graduation, or if you just received a college degree but want to learn a new language or skill, or if you simply have a desire to learn … well, might I suggest looking no further than your own community.

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Vincent Blake earned his IB Diploma in his hometown of Fairfield, California, US. From there, he attended his local community colleges and then transferred to the University of California, Los Angeles where he earned his B.A. in Film and Television in 2018. Though currently employed at NBCUniversal, he hopes to someday return to the classroom as an IB Film instructor. You can connect with Vincent on LinkedIn here.

To hear more from Diploma Programme (DP) graduates check out these IB programme stories. If you are an IB grad and want to share your story, write to us at alumni.relations@ibo.org. We appreciate your support in sharing IB stories and invite you to connect with us on LinkedIn, Twitter and now Instagram!

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