By Charlotte Steinway, 17, The Archer School for Girls
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Charlotte enjoyed learning about the environment in her human ecology class.

Photo by Jazmin Alvarez, 17, Downtown Business Magnet

Ever since I was a child, I spent my summers at camps surfing, ballet dancing or studying drama. But this year, my hopes of being a paid camp counselor or a Habitat for Humanity volunteer in Kyrgyzstan began to fade as I watched deadlines pass. Before I knew it, I had begun May without any summer plans.

I was about to begin an empty, unscheduled and unstructured two and a half months. I was utterly terrified.

After a few hours of crazed online research, I came up with a list of options: A) get a job, B) get an internship, C) vacation with a friend, or D) take courses at Santa Monica College. After contemplating each option, I decided to enroll in summer classes at SMC—journalism and human ecology.

The ironic thing is that my school doesn’t even offer credit for courses taken outside the walls of The Archer School for Girls, my high school in West L.A. Leave it to a 400-student, all-girls college preparatory institute to deem an SMC education unworthy of recognition.

I chose journalism because I’ve felt pressured by colleges to declare a definitive passion at the supposedly mentally capable age of 16, and the subject seemed a reasonable enough focus of life-long devotion. As for human ecology, even though my high school wouldn’t give me credit for it, I hoped that taking a summer science course would soften the blow when colleges notice that (gasp): I decided to drop science my senior year.

Feeling reassured about my decision, I logged onto the SMC Web site and clicked a button explaining how to enroll. My enthusiasm diminished as I scrolled down pages of regulations for entering SMC as a high school student. I had to print a form, sign it, print two other forms, get each signed by my dean of students and guidance counselor, with a list of courses I would be recommended for. Wait—then I needed a signed copy of my transcripts, the results of yet-to-be-taken English and math placement exams, a check covering the combined $27 tuition, my social security number, and a photo ID. When I brought them all to the Santa Monica College admissions office, then I would be good to go.

Later that week, I drove to the campus to take the English and math placement exams. I waited next to the grafitti-ridden bathroom outside the testing facility. And waited. And waited. And then I waited a little bit longer until a woman beckoned me inside.

The English test consisted of reading comprehension questions so easy, a non-English speaking 7-year-old could have answered them. But the math section had more than 50 questions covering geometry, algebra 2, trigonometry and calculus—with no calculator permitted. The room was getting emptier, so I assumed I was an extremely slow test taker. Finally I finished. The attendant printed my results, and squinted at the paper.

"Umm, we made a little boo boo," she said with an awkward giggle. "We made you take four more math sections than you were supposed to. Sorry, honey!"

I devoted the next week to completing my enrollment at SMC. I won’t go into detail about the three times I waited in a 25-minute line at admissions only to be rudely sent away for not having the correct forms, or the Disneyland-esque line at the bookstore, in which I lost my place after realizing that I had to check my bag behind the building. And once I finally got inside, my journalism textbook was nowhere to be found.

I was nervous before my first class

I was now prepared for Biology 9: Human Ecology, on Mondays and Wednesdays from 6:30 to 9:40 p.m., and Journalism 1: The News, on Tuesdays and Thursdays at the same time.

With my $35 parking permit, hideous $5 student ID card, and three clearly "used" books ($85 each) in hand, I was ready for class. Visions of youthful, attractive male classmates danced in my head as I parked my car on that first Monday night of school.

My teacher introduced himself as "Dean," insisting that we address him by first name. I liked this—at my school, when a student even slightly abbreviates a teacher’s last name, it is deemed wholly disrespectful.

The room was clean and industrial-looking, as a science class should be. Freezing and hi-tech, the classroom actually reminded me of the ones from my high school, only bigger.

I had expected the class to be stuffed with more than 40 rowdy high school and college boys—oh, and a few girls. Actually, the classroom had fewer than 20 students—all over the age of 25. However, there was one high school student, who was female, excessively peppy and a Girl Scout. I started to panic when I noticed that there was a grand total of three "boys" in the class. Two of them were middle-aged and enrolled in the subject out of "personal interest." Aside from the boys and the ungodly late hour, my first human ecology class was looking more like the science class I had taken in school only two weeks before.

Our first assignment was to pick a partner, learn one interesting fact about him or her, and decide together what was the biggest issue affecting our environment. I was terrified of having to choose a partner out of a sea of people at least seven years older, seven years more intelligent, and seven times more likely to disdain the prospect of being paired with a high school student.

When the girl next to me tapped my shoulder, I breathed a sigh of relief.

"Hi, I’m Luz," she said, and our conversation flowed. Quickly we decided that pollution would be our environmental issue, and then we moved onto more important topics—like that she used to work at the Urth Caffé in Beverly Hills, and had served Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen (my idols) their tuna sandwiches.

Each class thereafter was based on a PowerPoint lecture, and included the occasional quiz or in-class writing assignment. We had four guest speakers who spoke about environmental topics. The most interesting class we had was when we were learning about extinction and survival of the fittest. We "foraged" on the ground for sunflower seeds with different utensils to see which "species" of utensil could pick up the most seeds, and thus, survive in nature.

Journalism class was similar to high school

My journalism class was on a separate campus, about seven blocks away, with computers that were available to use, cleaner bathrooms, and a bookstore that actually had the book I needed.

Journalism began similarly to my ecology class. We had to pick a partner to interview, and then present that person to the class, along with two story ideas that came out during the interview. Much to my liking, my teacher, Mr. Rifkin (as we were instructed to call him), chose our partners for us, saving me the agony of scouring the room for someone who wouldn’t mind talking to a high school student. I glanced over and gave a slight smile to the leathery, bleached blonde, 40-something woman I was expected to interview. After less than 10 minutes, I knew plenty more about Casey than I had ever wished. Among other things, she was an aspiring parakeet breeder on the eternal quest to learn how to effortlessly grow plants in bad soil. From that interview alone, I had enough story ideas to last me a lifetime in journalism.

The remainder of the class was devoted to reviewing the copy of the Los Angeles Times we were instructed to bring.

Each class followed a remarkably routine schedule. We would discuss L.A. Times

After an hour or so, we were given a 20-minute break. I devoted those glorious minutes of freedom to either scarfing down a bag of trail mix and a diet Snapple from the vending machine (dinnertime!), or frantically calling every entry in my phone book to find out from friends about all the crazy parties I was missing.

After the break, Mr. Rifkin lectured us on those basic concepts of journalism I had learned in the first week of my freshman year of high school, like the "inverted pyramid," and the concept of "show, don’t tell." Luckily for me, seated on each of our desks was a computer with high-speed Internet access.

With the exception of the time we watched Hayden Christensen’s portrayal of Stephen Glass, in the film, "Shattered Glass," about a journalist who was caught inventing material for his articles, I found myself apathetic during most classes. At first I wanted to blame the teacher, the school, even the subject, but then it dawned on me. My teacher was experienced, the curriculum was thorough, and when it came to journalism—I couldn’t blame my "lifelong passion." It had to be me. I had stupidly enrolled in a beginning journalism class after having taken three years of it in high school.

And though I can beat myself up for selecting a class I had already taken for the past three years, it had a few advantages. I got some extra practice with my writing, considering we had to turn in three articles during the semester. I wrote a news story about my local neighborhood group, a feature on the rise in movie ticket prices and a film review.

In both classes it was bizarre having to write papers and study for tests, while my friends were at the beach or on vacation. Neither of my classes had any busywork assignments (that meant no "OMG here are the 10 ways I can stop global air pollution!!!" type homework). However, we did have quizzes, midterms, finals, papers and presentations. We also had a group project, which seemed daunting on the day it was assigned, but then Luz picked me to be her partner, and we met at the Urth Caffé to work on it (and no, we did not have a Mary-Kate and Ashley sighting). When I got assignments returned, it was difficult for me to get used to both teachers’ grading styles, especially in such a short time period. My grades fluctuated with each assignment—in human ecology, on the midterm I studied for I got a C+, and the one I was unprepared for, I got an A. Final grades were sent home at the end of August and I ended up with an A in both classes.

For three hours, four nights a week, I contemplated whether my SMC experience was worth it. I had sacrificed my vacation, free time, dinners, social life, even my sanity, all in the name of … school credit? Oh wait, my school doesn’t offer that. Starting my college education early? Nope, guess again. Avoiding boredom while learning something? Perhaps. I suppose overall, I am glad that I had something to do this summer—a daily routine that kept me from resorting to the refined pursuit of "myspacing." However, if I were to do it over again, I would spend a lot more time contemplating which subjects I would be willing to devote more than six hours a week to learning.

So I conclude my SMC endeavor poorer ($1.75 for a Snapple?!), academically drained (I turned in a seven-page research paper, a 2,000-word feature article, and completed two final exams in four days), and knowing the percentage of usable freshwater left on our planet (0.014 percent) and the number of sources needed to verify a statement to be a fact (three). I leave this experience hungrier, older and wiser, all without any credit to show for it. However, going to SMC taught me to become more independent and self-motivated about my academic career. Not only did community college give me something to do, but it also gave me the impetus to start figuring out my plans for next summer, just so you won’t be reading the article "SMC: Part II," around this time next year.  articles, which usually led to heated U.S. foreign policy debates between the overzealous brownnoser in the back of the room, and the rest of the class. This debate-like forum bore a striking resemblance to my 10th grade world history class, which was surprising, considering I had expected journalism class to be most similar to my, well, high school journalism class.