Survival Skills for Community College Students
By Diane Wai
San Francisco, CA
Editor’s Note: With shrinking funds for higher education due to budget cuts, students are facing an increasingly hostile environment on campus. One student in San Francisco shares her survival tips for thriving and surviving on today’s community college campus. This profile was produced by The Campaign for College Opportunity, and shares the complicated path that community college students across California are being forced to navigate in their quest to improve their lives and contribute to their communities.
Victoria Conlu, 22, grew up in a multi-generational Filipino household with her mom, siblings, aunts, uncles and grandparents in the San Francisco Bay area. Victoria’s education was a family affair, and all the adults in the household contributed financially to her primary and secondary education. She explains that they never owned their own home, instead they rented because the family “always invested a lot of money into sending me to private school.” For Victoria, going to college was a foregone conclusion.
Several years ago, Victoria’s mom, stepfather and younger siblings relocated to Texas. She now lives in Daly City, a city about 10 miles south of San Francisco, where she shares an apartment with her grandmother. She is married to Erik, her high school sweetheart, who has just been discharged from the military as of last month.
A top student at Deer Valley High School, Victoria ranked number 13 out of 700 students. From high school, she was accepted to the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and to Mills College, a school for women in Oakland, California. After deciding to switch focus from journalism to nursing, Victoria decided to enroll at City College of San Francisco (CCSF). It was affordable, and she knew several students who had gone through the nursing program and had positive experiences.
The first week of class brought many unexpected challenges.
“There were people desperate to get classes,” Victoria says. She paints the scene: “Students packed every inch of free classroom space just hoping for a chance to add the course. Some brought folding chairs, others sat on the floor. Everybody just got really upset. There would be people standing outside of class who would start scenes with professors, like ‘I really need this class! You don’t understand!’ It was really a hostile environment trying to get into classes.”
“It took me a whole year to realize that I needed to nudge my way into places,” Victoria says. “When I first started college I wasn’t as assertive as some of the other students, and I wouldn’t demand that I deserved to be in the class. I’d kind of hang back and not get a spot. I just didn’t have as much of a backbone yet, so I couldn’t demand that I be able to stay in the class, which is what I ended up having to do.”
One semester, it was essential for Victoria to get a seat in an Introduction to Medical Chemistry course. The course was a pre-requisite for subsequent chemistry courses, and since she was unable to enroll in the course the previous semester, she risked delaying her transfer.
“I had to plop myself down into a seat and stay. I was not going to leave,” she says. “I’d just sit in the classroom, and I was like ‘I’m not leaving.’”
Her persistence paid off and the professor added her to the class.
“I think the way the registration system works at CCSF is that there are a certain number of students who can enroll. Then, the online registration gets shut down, and no other people can enroll. The teachers can give out these special permit codes to a certain number of people,” she says. The special permit codes allow teachers, at their discretion, to add students beyond the online enrollment limit. Victoria found that some professors were indifferent to student demand. “I had this one professor who was like ‘I don’t want to give out all my permit codes because it’s easier to manage smaller classes.’ ”
Many times, courses are offered at inconvenient times, or they overlapped with one another. “Let’s say I needed to take an English class, a math class and a science class. They would all overlap each other. You’d have to pick one, and then you’d have to wait until the next semester to take the next class. By then, there would be a backlog of people who also needed to take that same class.”
Like many students, Victoria went to great lengths to attend class.
At the time, she lived in Brentwood, an East Bay city about 60 miles from San Francisco. She did not have a car, and her daily commute on public transportation took nearly four hours each way. She rode a bus to the Pittsburg stop on the BART subway line that took her to the campus.
“I’d have to leave about 5 a.m. to get to a 9 o’clock class,” she says. “I was always bringing my homework on the train and doing it to and from school, and eating breakfast at school while walking between classes.”
“Many times people won’t tell you what resources are available and you have to snoop around for yourself just to see what’s there and what’s useful to you,” Victoria says. Among the resources she discovered and found useful were the free or low cost health services and the class planning services. The class planning service generates a semester-by-semester class schedule that helps students stay on track and keep abreast of requirements.
“That’s what trips people up. They’ll take a class, and then realize they took the wrong class. They won’t know exactly what’s required. It helps to talk to people who can help you stay on track.” Class planning can be done by counselors or by peer-to-peer mentors.
When Victoria worked as a peer-to-peer counselor, she noticed that few students took advantage of the services offered. “So few people came to our offices.” The main channel for information distribution was the posting of fliers on bulletin boards. “I think the schools should take up more of the burden of making sure people know about these kinds of things,” she says. The school’s website does not post extensive information on student resources. “There’s not really a cohesive effort at the community college to make it known just what’s going on.”
Another issue Victoria stresses is a fragmented student body: “Students don’t feel a sense of connection to each other.” Increased competition among students for a shrinking pool of resources drives wedges in the student body.
“I think the circumstances are such that everybody has to compete with each other and that makes people more prone to make divisions,” she says. “The competition builds hostility between ethnic groups, well-to-do students, and those who need more aid, and that makes for a hostile learning environment.”
Victoria is now a senior at San Francisco State University (SFSU). The nursing program requires an application and admission that is separate from the University’s and Victoria is in the process of applying. In fact, she is applying to several nursing programs; CSU San Bernardino, CSU Sacramento and San Jose State University. In all, she spent four semesters at CCSF before transferring on time and on track. After two semesters at SFSU, she returned to CCSF to take two courses she could not get at the university. She says the problem of class shortages is one facing the state’s entire public education system.
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