How Mentors And Community College Took Me From Honduras To Tufts University
By: Yanelle Cruz
This article was originally posted on Forbes.
I left Honduras and arrived in South Florida with two suitcases, only enough money to pay for my first semester at Broward College, and an intense desire to make the most of my opportunity for an education. Family and friends thought it was a little foolish not having a concrete plan to continue paying for college, but I knew if I didn’t take the plunge to enroll in school, then I might never have the chance again.
So I spent most of my first semester finding ways to afford the next one, and that soon became a routine. Tuition money was never guaranteed, but support and encouragement from the Broward College community always were. I was lucky to have people like Broward College’s then-president David J. Armstrong, Honors College director Sheila Jones, and sociology professor Todd Bernhardt as mentors who constantly encouraged me to pursue all opportunities and believed in me, even when I didn’t believe in myself.
Throughout my two years at Broward College, I worked full-time to support myself. Nevertheless, I lacked the funds for stable housing and stayed at friends’ homes. I skipped meals, and I didn’t see my family for long periods of time. Unfortunately, those hardships aren’t unique to my story. A report released by Temple University and the Wisconsin HOPE Lab found that 36% of students suffer from food insecurity and 12% of community college students struggle with homelessness while enrolled in community college.
Even in the midst of these financial obstacles, I thrived as a member of our Honors College and our Phi Theta Kappa chapter. I traveled the country presenting sociological research I did with Dr. Bernhardt that looked into the levels of social integration of international students on my campus. We studied how social integration affected student’s academic performance and their sense of belonging. I traveled to our state capitol in Tallahassee as a member of the student government to advocate for legislation that our student body cared about. I met prospective students through my role as a campus tour guide and student ambassador and encouraged them to seize their opportunity for higher education. I competed in Model United Nations conferences with our team and was selected to staff several events. Most importantly, mentors who knew the importance of guiding and encouraging students were always there for me, and spending time with passionate and motivated students inspired me to do more than I thought possible.
My time at Broward was so transformative that when I graduated—despite achieving the milestone of being a first-generation graduate—I was incredibly sad. Leaving an empowering community full of opportunities that enhanced my personal and professional growth was bittersweet. I was sad to leave the dedicated and supportive faculty, who became more than just my professors because they guided me to success beyond the classroom. I was sad to leave the administrators who took time to get to know my story, and invested their time in the lives of the students they worked to serve. As I walked across the stage at commencement, I knew I was leaving an extraordinary place because there’s nothing like a community college.
As if a degree and a wonderful two years weren’t enough, the summer after graduation I moved to Washington, D.C., and participated in The Fund for American Studies’ Institute on Economics and International Affairs, thanks to Broward College. Because of my experiences that summer and the connections I made, Google accepted me as a public policy fellow the following summer. In a cohort of 25 fellows, I was proud to represent community colleges as the only student in the cohort with a community college background. That summer, I learned I was just as capable as the peers in my cohort, and that the stigma others have against the quality of a community college education just isn’t true.
Before Broward, I didn’t think I could become a highly educated Latina, despite growing up with the desire to become one. Now, since transferring to Tufts University in Massachusetts, I am one step closer to reaching that educational goal.
I am confident my first two years of college would not have been the same anywhere else, much less at a four-year institution. Looking back, I know I was meant to go to the community college, despite how difficult it was to make that decision in the first place. You see, there’s a negative stigma associated with two-year colleges, but it only took a few weeks at Broward for me to realize those negative opinions are not valid. The opportunities granted to me at Broward allowed me to become a Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Undergraduate Scholar and continue my education at Tufts University, allowing me to become the first person in my family to attend a leading research university..
Broward College gave me the foundation to be successful at Tufts, where I have found many ways to further the intellectual and social passions I discovered at community college. I’ve been able to nurture my love for storytelling as a reporter for The Tufts Daily, and I’ve been able to satisfy my hunger for research by working with Dr. Helen Marrow in the Sociology Department. I’ve discovered a passion for media and videography by participating in an anthology-style documentary through Tufts University Television. I’ve found a way to engage with the community and share powerful ideas as a speaker coach for TEDxTufts. None of this would have occurred if I had not had those experiences at Broward before coming to Tufts. When I think about my higher education experience, even if I had to do it all over again, I would always choose community college.
I chose to work as a Fellow at the College Promise Campaign this summer because I believe that a community college or technical education should be as universal and free as high school has been for over a hundred years. Nobody should be denied the opportunity to get the education or skills they need because they don’t have the money to pay for it.
At the College Promise Campaign, we encourage localities and states to create College Promise programs making at least two years of community college free for anyone who wants to put in the work. And we encourage communities to provide Promise students with the kind of encouragement and social support I had so they can succeed.
When students are relieved from worrying about their finances, they can focus on pursuing their passions and they can take advantage of every academic and professional opportunity that comes their way. By focusing their energy on furthering their education and passions, students can reap all the amazing benefits a community college education can afford.
Becoming a Jack Kent Cooke Foundation scholar lifted a huge weight off of me and allowed me to think about all the things I could pursue and achieve because I was no longer limited by financial hardship. What the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation did for me, a free college program can do for students all over the country. To find out how to start building a College Promise program in your community, please visit our website, collegepromise.org. Our nation and world will reap the benefits of educated students like me for generations to come!