While community colleges do not enjoy the prestige of many 4-year institutions, their affordability, individualized attention, and training opportunities make them undervalued gems, as these three success stories show.
Josie Gulliksen's journey toward career success began at Miami Dade Community College in Florida. The institution gave Gulliksen a firm foundation for a career that started in journalism and then branched out to public relations and freelance writing.
Exceptional professors brought Josie's English and history classes to life. During her time at the community college, she not only learned journalism basics in the classroom, but also applied those newly acquired skills as part of her school experience. As a staff member of the Metropolis, the college's prestigious newspaper, Josie covered both campus news and local community events.
Josie credits her experiences at Miami Dade with paving the way for her career success. ''I worked at a business weekly for the first seven years of my career,'' Gulliksen explains, ''and the training I got at that community college was invaluable. It has helped me throughout my career in both journalism and public relations and now as a freelance writer. I learned to write under pressure and produce good stories.''
Engineering a Path to Success
Chris Schenkenfelder dreamed of becoming an engineer. However, his family stressed learning a trade over academic achievement. When Chris graduated from high school, he did not feel prepared to attend a 4-year college. Moreover, he was not in a position to afford such an education.
At age 24, Schenkenfelder decided that he wanted to earn his engineering degree. Triton, a community college in River Grove, Illinois, helped Chris bridge the gap between his unsatisfactory high school experience and the requirements of higher education. He mastered Algebra I and II, along with trigonometry, through self-directed remedial courses; the almost round-the-clock availability of Triton's math mentors supported his efforts. ''I found it extremely easy and comfortable to learn the math I needed this way,'' Schenkenfelder recalls.
Schenkenfelder's classes at the community college brought him up to speed academically, and his professors made an indelible impression. Nearly four decades after attending Triton, he still thinks back to the good-natured English professor who held a party in her home to celebrate her students' success. Chris' physics professor wrote an original workbook and associated computer program for the students. There was also the supportive algebra professor who reminded his students that experience was the best teacher.
Schenkenfelder remembers his chemistry professor offering to grade final exams for the students while they waited, so they could get their results quickly: ''I can still see his face all lit up and smiling when he poked his head out of the classroom door, looked at me, and said, 'You got an ''A'' for the course'.''
Dr. Lia Brillhart, who taught engineering courses at Triton, was one of Chris' favorite professors. Tough but fair, she insisted on academic rigor. When Chris lacked the experience to complete a coding assignment, she allowed him to substitute a different project. ''She received her doctorate from the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) in mechanical engineering and she was a big part of the reason I transferred there.''
Thanks to his community college experience, Chris Schenkenfelder was able to fulfill his career dreams. He overcame a discouraging start and achieved academic success, earning his Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering from IIT in 1988. Chris now works as a senior manufacturing engineer for a global producer of custom electronic systems and high-tech lighting products.
Overcoming Shyness & Finding Success Next Door
Susan M. Steele graduated from high school with good grades. However, as a timid teenager, she was reluctant to leave home to attend a 4-year college.
Susan found her answer less than a mile from her home, right next door to her high school: The local community college opened its doors to welcome her, and she blossomed on its close-knit campus. ''I liked the closer atmosphere. To a shy 18-year-old, it seemed much more approachable than a 4-year university,'' Steele states. Her associate's degree qualified her for a career as a legal secretary. Steele believes that without that community college degree, she probably would not have gotten her first full-time job at a law firm.
As Susan's career aspirations grew, she decided to return to community college part-time to train as a legal assistant. She notes that the community college met all of the requirements for proper accreditation, including classes taught by licensed lawyers. When she finished her studies, Steele was hired as a legal assistant by the same firm where she had been working as a secretary.
Eventually, Susan chose to leave the legal field and pursue a bachelor's degree. Even though she switched her field to English, her stints at the community college stood her in good stead: She was able to apply two years' worth of credits to her 4-year degree and finish in half the time. Steele is now a writing coach and editor, helping other writers to publish their works.
''What I loved about community college was the small class sizes [...] and the specialization it offered,'' Susan reflects. ''I still think community colleges are great options. They maintain their specialized training, which we still need in this world. And in light of skyrocketing education costs, it's much more affordable to start at a community college and then transfer to a 4-year university.''
A Viable Alternative
Community colleges can offer the ingredients for academic success just as well as their traditional 4-year counterparts. As PJ Malin, an honors graduate of Mohawk Valley Community College in New York notes, ''What's important in any education, whether it's a 2-year or 4-year institution, public or private, is to be exposed to a broad curriculum […] and to be taught by caring teachers who want to see their students succeed beyond the classroom.''