Like a typical Ivy League student, I concluded my high school career a year and a half ago with many accolades: varsity track, class valedictorian, the yearbook’s “most likely to be successful.” I was selected to give the commencement speech over a girl who was about to attend Stanford. At the time, this came as a surprise to many people at my school, considering that my next move was not to Yale, but rather Foothill Community College. Having been in both academic contexts gives me a unique perspective, allowing me to debunk many of the mythologies we may hold about community college at Yale.
While I was a student at Foothill, everyone outside of my school doubted my intelligence. But now that I’m at Yale, nobody in the outside world does so. From my shift from one of the most scrutinized places of higher education to one of the most glorified, I’ve learned how things aren’t always the way they seem. At Yale, we may hold many notions about what community college is, but looking from the outside in ignores what the experience is really like.
It’s undeniable that the social stigma that accompanies community college led those outside of Foothill to second-guess my intelligence, abilities and even my judgement. In their perspective, I had the “better” option of attending one of the six four-year universities to which I had been accepted immediately out of high school.
My peers in high school often tried to extrapolate where I had gone wrong: “Maybe it was her test scores.” “What about those personal statements?” These speculations were formulated as though attending community college was a consequence of bad decisions or misfortune. One could never imagine it being a viable option that simply fit my circumstances at the time.
Interestingly enough, I have met some of the brightest individuals I know through Foothill, and — sadly — that claim will be taken more seriously now that I’m a Yale student. As an institution that accepts everyone, community colleges can access the wisdom of students gained from many years of life and vastly diverse paths to education. The refreshing range of hopes and goals gave insight into life in the broadest sense of the word, beyond education alone.
That is not to say all students at community college have futures in neuroscience or government; there are, as there are at any school, those who lack motivation or are not inclined to learn. This does not represent the majority of community college students. Still, most of society considers community college as the lowest end of the educational spectrum. This perception is unfair and judgmental. It assumes that societal prestige is the only marker of a school’s value.
I now sit at the top end of this perceived educational totem pole. Geared up with a blue Yale sweatshirt at the airport, I know I’ll get questions and positive acknowledgements from passersby. We often surpass the first stages of job applications with ease because Yale is the first thing employers see on our resumes. Contrary to what I experienced at Foothill, no outsider has any doubt in their mind that I am intelligent. The only people who do question it are fellow students, mentors and professors here on campus. This time though, it is not with preconceived notions that my intelligence is lacking.
I spent my last meal engrossed in a conversation with my suitemates about evidence for the existence of free will versus determinism. We constantly challenge each other to intellectual duels. We want to learn and gain knowledge from others. This constant questioning is one thing that I love about at Yale. But in so many ways, the same conversations happened at Foothill. In fact, the people at each institution often remind me of one another.
We as a society must change our outlook on the nearly six million community college students in the U.S. and work to overcome stigma. We must not restrict people from reaching their full potential on the basis of our preconceived notions of what they can and cannot do.
BROOKE ALVIAR is a junior in Saybrook College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .