Letter From The Editor:
The Community College—and LACCD: A Place “to Grow”
By Nuala Lincke-Ivic, Editor & WLAC Associate Professor

nualaBecause of the ongoing public controversy about the “failure” of various academic systems and organizations to achieve student success—better test scores, more passing grades, graduates and transfers to four-year schools—I feel compelled to discuss the role of the community college in this fall 2012 issue of West. I also feel compelled to defend the performance of the nine colleges that comprise the Los Angeles Community College District (LACCD). Therefore, consider this Letter from the Editor an apology, in the archaic sense of the word (a “defense,” not an “I’m sorry”), for the community college, in general, and specifically for LACCD. Let me begin this defense with a true story about the transformative power of the community college: its power to change lives for the better. The story I will tell is my mother’s story, and because it is her story, it is also my story. Like so many successful community college students who are parents, my mother was a role model for me. Her academic success told me that I, too, could be successful: earn a college degree. Therefore, she is, in a very fundamental way, the author of my academic success—and my primary motivation for becoming a community college instructor.

When I was 12 years old, my mother completed nursing school at Rio Hondo Community College, passed the state nursing boards, and became an R.N. She was 50 years old, and the mother of six children. Her previous jobs had been as a bank teller, a noon duty aide at my junior high school—making sure students behaved during the lunch hour—and a babysitter. She earned minimum wage—sometimes less. The summer after she graduated from Rio Hondo, she began working as an R.N. at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles for an annual salary of approximately $50,000. The year was 1976—when 50,000 extra dollars a year seemed like winning the lottery to a family with six children.

Because of my mother, I have always been a big believer in the power of community colleges to transform lives. After all, I have witnessed this transformation up close, first—as you know—as the daughter of a community college student, then as a community college instructor. And now I have witnessed this power as the wife of a community college student. In late 2011, my husband Joe—motivated by the economic downturn, but also by his desire to earn a college degree—decided to close his carpentry business and become a full-time college student. In late May of 2012, he completed the first year of the Dental Technology Program at Los Angeles City College. I am so proud of him. He feels such a sense of pride in excelling academically, in forging the beginnings of a new career. In his 40s, he is transforming his life, and he is one of 18.9% of LACCD students who are 35 and over—students like my mother once was. What an inspiration these older students are to the 22.6% of LACCD students who are 25-34, and the 58.6% of LACCD students who are under 24 years of age. What is the message these older students, like my husband, teach younger students? It is the same message my mother taught me, when I was 12 years old, and watched her, a 50-year-old mother of six, walk across the stage in a shining white nurse’s uniform during her 1976 graduation from Rio Hondo Community College. It is never too late to change your life—or too early to chart the direction of your life.

During his July 14, 2009, speech at Macomb Community College in Warren, Michigan, President Obama provided one of the best descriptions I have ever encountered of the special mission of the community college—and what differentiates it from most four-year colleges and universities:

[The community college] is a place where anyone—anyone with a desire to learn and to grow, to take their career to a new level or start a new career altogether—has the opportunity to pursue their dream….  This is a place where people of all ages and all backgrounds—even in the face of obstacles, even in the face of very difficult personal challenges—can take a chance on a brighter future for themselves and their families.

Of course, this quote also serves as evidence that the low transfer rates reported by LACCD—only 25%, according to one recent study—do not reflect the transformative power of either the community college or the nine community colleges of LACCD. For this reason, it seems a mistake to point to transfer rates as the sole measure of the success of LACCD. As LACCD reports:

    • Fifty four percent of the students who graduated from the California State University (CSU) system in 2009-2010 had attended a community college. (ARCC 2011 Final Report)
    • Twenty eight percent of graduates from the University of California (UC) system in 2009-2010 had attended a community college. (ARCC 2011 Final Report)

But there is also additional statistical proof that transfer rates should not be the sole measure of LACCD’s success. According to the most current published statistics LACCD provides, of the 141,586 students enrolled in LACCD colleges in 2010, only 27.6% were enrolled full-time, only 39.4% intended to transfer to a four-year college or university, and a whopping 16.1% were “unknown/undecided” in regard to their educational goals. But the community college has always been a place where students find themselves, discover who they are and what they want to do in terms of a career. Recently, an acquaintance of mine—who was a community college student for seven years—supported this contention for me. He told me: “When I was in community college, I had an instructor who told me that when I decided what I wanted to do with my life, I would be on fire.” Well, sometime during the seven years he was a community college student, that fire was lit. He earned a Ph.D., became a businessman, and teaches at a university.

The simple truth about most community colleges that transfer statistics alone do not tell us is: Many community college students need more time to achieve their academic objectives, especially if they intend to transfer to four-year colleges and universities. Many students—like the 16.1 of 2010 LACCD students whose educational goals were “unknown/undecided”—need time to find themselves, to decide who they are and what they want to achieve academically. Additionally, many community college students are busy working full-time, have families who absorb their time (my mom had six children when she was a community college student), and were not focused in terms of academic objectives during high school. For this latter reason, many students come to the community college academically deficient, and some semesters are devoted to developmental writing, reading and math—how many semesters is dictated by a student’s status—full- or part-time—and by his or her academic diligence. Of course, there are also many students who were and are focused in terms of academic objectives, and complete their programs of study in four or five semesters. These students choose to complete some or all of their general education courses at a community college because it is vastly more affordable than a four-year college or university. For 2012-13, LACCD will charge California residents $1,104 in tuition for 24 units, UCs will charge $13,200, and CSUs will charge $6,839.

So…the point I’m making about community college students is this one: There is no standard profile, no mold all community college students fit; their academic objectives and needs vary. Transfer statistics alone do not shed light on the complex lives and needs of many community college students. However, one fact is certain: The community college is always a smart choice for students, financially and personally. As President Obama contended in his Macomb speech, the community college is a place “to grow.”

When I think of the community college today—and its mission, which President Obama so eloquently detailed in his Macomb speech—I am reminded that my role as an English professor at a community college is not just a job—it’s a vocation, a calling. As a community college instructor, I should never wait for students to find their way, to set their own academic objectives and career goals; I need to help them to find their way, in partnership with academic counselors. I always have a few visuals, pictures in my mind that remind me of this obligation. One of my most recent pictures is of two of the students in a spring 2012 writing class: 19-year-old Sherri Rabin, and 65-year-old Ronald Ward. Both are academically successful students, peers who sat near each other in class and helped each other to succeed. They both feel an equal sense of belonging as community college students, are part of its wonderful and diverse mosaic. Another of my recent pictures is of a student who was once attracted to the gang life, juxtaposed with a picture of a student who survived a drive-by shooting. And yet another recent picture I hold in my mind is of Jeffrey Asante, a West Los Angeles College Honors student who is now at UCLA. So many pictures crowd my mind, new and old, to remind me of my role as a community college instructor. Also from spring 2012 there is a picture of Christiana Omezi and Zek Oniwor, new Americans, students who emigrated from Africa to the United States. The community college is helping them to achieve dreams that were not possible in their homeland: a college degree! And then, of course, there’s yet another very important and personal picture in my mind: my husband Joe, whose parents could afford to send only one child to college in his homeland of Croatia, and that child was not Joe. But let me not forget to mention one very old picture—one I always carry in my mind’s eye. This picture is of my mother. She is in her shining white nurse’s uniform, walking across the stage during commencement, and smiling more than I had ever seen her smile in her life.

The community college, in general, and the nine colleges of LACCD are a place “to grow,” as President Obama asserted in his Macomb speech. We must not allow ourselves to be perceived solely through the lens of transfer statistics. Viewed solely through these lens, our mission is obscured, we can lose heart, we can be interpreted as a failing academic system. We are not! The community college—and LACCD—is a place where students can find themselves, if they need to, and transfer to four-year colleges if and when they want to transfer. Of course, we can encourage them to do so, to believe in their own worthiness to attain a college education, which I often believe is our biggest obstacle to student success: to convince students to believe that “yes, you are worthy of a college education!”

Thinking back to my childhood, I remember a first day of school—not mine, but my mother’s: her first day at Rio Hondo Community College. I remember how nervous my mother was, and how afraid she was of failing academically. What courage it took for her, a woman then in her late 40’s and with six children, to enroll in a community college. Her fears echoed the fears that Cheryl Watson, an older student in my spring 2012 creative writing class, described to me during a recent visit to my office. In 2008, she was laid off from her career as an administrative assistant in logistics. After she was laid off, she floundered for a time, feeling overwhelmed, lost. Then, one day, Cheryl told me…

I was sitting on the side of the bed, depressed. And with no direction for the future. I turned on the TV. It was about 10 o’clock at night. Then, Barack Obama’s address to the nation came on.   And it was like Barack stepped out of the TV and sat down on the bed, and told me everything will be all right. “Just give me two years of higher education.” It was something like that, that he said, and it just energized me to pursue going to school.

For Cheryl, afraid to take the first step of her college education, “The counselors at West Los Angeles College were like safety nets for me…the whole process of starting school was very traumatic for me, but the support I got from the school was what kept me here.” Like my mother, Cheryl initially “had no confidence in myself. I thought I was too old, and that it was too much.” And then she smiled, a smile that reminded me of my mother’s smile when she walked across a stage in a shining white uniform. “But here I am,” Cheryl told me, “in my second year [at WLAC] with a 3.0-plus GPA, and direction and focus, and the energy to forward march and transfer to a university.”

Together, working as a team—teachers, students, staff, and administrators—we can achieve more, and we are achieving more than transfer statistics alone indicate. LACCD is not a failing academic system; it is, like many community colleges, a place to grow. This publication—West—seeks to emulate the good work of LACCD.

West –a publication made possible by the hard work and dedication of professors from several LACCD colleges—publishes the quality artworks of LACCD artists, past and present: students, staff, faculty and administrators. By this recognition, we tell them that “yes, you are worthy; you are an artist.” We provide them with a place to grow.

Artists—taggers, piecers, painters, writers, poets…!—submit your varied artworks to us for publication consideration. Let us help you to grow.

Cheers,

Nuala Lincke-Ivic
West Editor & Associate Professor
English Department, Language Arts Division
West Los Angeles College


“Fast Facts.” Los Angeles Community College District. LACCD.edu, 2012. Web. 6 May 2012.

“HOW MUCH DOES IT COST TO ATTEND?” Fees. LAColleges.Net.  LAColleges.Net, 2012. Web. 6 May 2012. 

Pearl. Maury Y. "Re: Transfer Rate for LACCD." Message to David E. Beaulieu. 30 May 2012. E-mail.

“What does UC cost?” University of California. universityofcalifornia.edu, 2012. Web. 6 May 2012.

“What is the Cost of Attendance Budget?” Cal State LA. calstatela.edu, 2012. Web. 6 May 2012.

Watson, Cheryl. Personal interview. 15 May. 2012.

 


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