In a town dominated by UC Berkeley students and spirit the existence of Berkeley City College can easily go unnoticed. Whenever I’ve told people I live in Berkeley or that I’m a student their next question is, “Oh, do you go to Cal?” And I have to explain that I am actually a student at Berkeley City College. Feeling somewhat embarrassed by this admission I tend to immediately follow it up by saying, “But I’ve applied to transfer to a UC.” I’ve asked myself why I feel uncomfortable saying I go to BCC when I am surrounded by an astounding student body.
Last semester, as I sat on the floor outside my humanities classroom waiting for the door to be unlocked, a young girl around my age plopped herself down across from me and started voraciously eating a salad. I said, “You seem hungry!” She smiled and, without putting down her fork, said, “I have no time to do anything, let alone eat! I work six days a week and go to school full time, not to mention, you know… life.”
Community colleges are frequently misinterpreted as places that house slackers and people who don’t work hard, when in reality it’s quite the opposite. That girl is only one small example of the resilience of the students at Berkeley City College. While some students have the luxury of beginning college straight out of high school, others have been victims of circumstance that impedes their education.
A young man I met in my Critical Thinking class last semester is an excellent example of this. His name is Karam and by first glance you wouldn’t guess that he is a survivor of the Iraqi war, who went through more in a few years than most people will go through their entire lives. He described his experience in a personal essay he submitted to the University of California,
“I kept going to school; even though my high school was bombed. I lost some family members, the worse one was when my uncle was kidnapped, tortured, and then cold-bloodedly killed. I faced death several times: I was shot at twice, a gun pointed to my head twice, and I was beaten almost to death. I was mugged, kidnapped and beaten up severely. All that didn’t prevent me from going to school, getting my high school diploma and getting into a four years university.”
In his essay Karam goes on to explain how he received an engineering degree, but to avoid the ongoing conflict in his country he relocated to the United States only to find his degree had no significance here. He had no money, and no education according to United States bureaucracy so he had to start completely from scratch working forty hours a week and taking classes at night. When I think of Karam and that girl outside my classroom my embarrassment for going to Berkeley City College slips away and is replaced by pride.
There tends to be a stigma around going to community college versus a University. I have met University students who seem to take their education for granted because it has been so easy for them. This doesn’t make me angry but rather fortunate that I am surrounded by a student body that mostly sees their education as a luxury and an opportunity because they have had to struggle to get it. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience has studied happiness and fulfillment across cultures and has continuously found that no matter what background we come from, overcoming an obstacle or struggling somehow makes what we achieve much sweeter than it would be had it just been handed to us.
I’m not arguing that all University students are spoiled and take their education for granted; I believe they also have worked very hard to get where they are. Instead I hope to negate the idea that community college students are somehow incompetent and replace it with the truth: they are a multifaceted, exceptional group of people with a lot to offer because of the irregularity of their lives and the diversity of their experiences. As one will learn in Professor McAllister’s Sociology class innovation is a form of deviance, and as a student body whose majority has deviated from the supposedly “normal” path, we have an exponential amount of opportunities for innovation, which in my eyes is exciting to think about.