Community College as a Stepping Stone

I’m one of those students who used Community College as a stepping stone in order to rehabilitate my academic career. The eight year Odyssey of my undergraduate degree goes something like this. I attended Rutgers University from September 1997 until December 2001 where I earned 76 credits. I had some half-baked notion of being pre-med and I vaguely remember taking some high octane science classes like genetics, immunology, organic chemistry and parasitology. After two years, without consulting anyone, I decided to become an English major. I never actually talked with my parents or my advisor or even formally changed majors, mind you, I just started taking English classes. In December 2001, with a middle C grade point average and having used up the indulgence of my father, I left Rutgers.

I worked for the next two and a half years. Through the salutary effect of work life, I gradually realized that my future lay in teaching and writing and I didn’t have to choose between either. While living with my parents in Middletown, New Jersey, I began taking classes at Brookdale Community College. I attended from the Fall of 2003 until the Spring of 2004. I earned a 4.0 in four community college classes. Then, to complete my degree, from the Fall of 2004 to the Spring of 2005 I took my final classes online at Thomas Edison State College.

Ironically, my final college class was Literature Across Borders, which I took to fulfill a non-Western literature requirement. I took this class as a non-matriculating student at Rutgers University. I earned my BA in English from Thomas Edison in June 2005 with a GPA a shade under 3.0. After 8 years I decided to forgo the farce of a graduation and I found my degree in a brown UPS parcel sitting on our front porch on a sunny summer afternoon.

So, yeah, I’m one of those believers in the idea that students should be encouraged to work, volunteer, travel or serve in the military for a few years before attending college in order to avoid wasting some poor college’s time, their parents’ money and their own credit history and grade point average. When I went to University, I wasn’t remotely prepared for the amount of work that I would have to do. I coasted through high school without doing much homework and I still graduated with honors. In college, my abilities stopped being unique and I found that I could not longer cram or write flowery term papers devoid of substance.

Community College acted as a half-way house between University and High School. Brookdale had the feel, look and student body of a four year university. My Cultural Anthropology class was every bit as detailed and demanding as the equivalent class at Rutgers. My Literature of the Occult class was a fascinating blend of discussion and movie watching. The paper writing was less chore and more intellectual exercise.

I had to work hard to earn my A’s in Community College but there were several reasons why this was easier to do. My professors were more laid-back and helpful than my teachers at Rutgers. They knew who I was and identified my flaws. At Rutgers I was a Social Security Number taped to a lecture hall door with a grade next to it. For example, I once took a Systems Physiology class for which I never once attended the lecture or bought the book. I borrowed a text from friends to cram for the mid-term and final, which were the only graded assignments and earned a B+. That never happened at Brookdale where participation was an integral part of my grades.

Another reason why community benefited me was that my fellow students fell into two very distinct categories: younger students who didn’t care about learning and older students who did. The younger ones were unmotivated high school graduates who lacked even the talent to bluff their way into four year schools. The older ones were adults who had never attended college and now did so on their own dime, as a privilege, not a right. In the middle were four year washouts, like me. The contrast was rehabilitating in that the inane commentary and disrespect of the younger students shined a harsh light on my own past misdeeds and I found myself gravitating toward the older students.

The final benefits were economic ones. I was able to stay with my family, which saved me housing and meal plan fees. The credits were also much cheaper ($80 per credit in 2003) than those at Rutgers and thus I could afford to take two classes at a time without financial aid. I further saved by taking electives at Brookdale so that I didn’t have to do so when I returned to four year college.

I wasn’t exactly God’s gift to academia when I enrolled in classes at Brookdale Community College but the experience of attending class there reminded me of what it was to be a student and the exemplary grades that I earned in my classes reminded of what it was like to be a successful one. It was an important first step in winning back the future of my life.