What are your plans after high school?

By Devin Ruiz, 19, Santa Monica College
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Devin says you can have a great "college experience" at community college by gettting involved.

After taking a tour of UC Berkeley at the end of sophomore year, I fell in love with the school and knew it was where I wanted to be. Every student I met on my campus tour was wearing something “Cal” and telling me that this is the college I should go to. I was convinced.

The problem was that my GPA, while good, was nowhere near the 4.0 that I felt I would need to get in. I thought about working extra hard to raise my grades to give myself a slim chance to get accepted, but I had taken only one honors class and one AP class and wasn’t very involved in extracurriculars. Then I thought about going to a Cal State for undergrad and going to Berkeley for graduate school. But I knew that would feel like settling and I wouldn’t be happy. So I decided to go to a community college for two years and then try to transfer to Berkeley. I figured that community college would be a chance to start over and get better grades so that I could transfer to my dream school.

I went to a private, all-girls Catholic school where the majority of students were smart and had known their dreams schools, like Cal Tech and UC San Diego, since they started freshman year. It was difficult not to compare myself to other girls in my class. When I told my classmates I was going to a community college, I felt embarrassed. One classmate told me I wasn’t going to a “real college.”

Although I started to regret that I hadn’t tried to get better grades during my freshman and sophomore years, I was motivated to create a plan that would allow me to transfer to a UC in two years. I started by enrolling at Santa Monica College, the community college that has that highest transfer rate to the UCs. Then I promised myself that I would work as hard as possible to get at least a 3.7 GPA (a 3.0 is the minimum GPA needed to transfer to a UC, but I wanted to increase my chances of getting into more competitive schools like Berkeley). I would have to stop procrastinating and start studying a week before the test instead of an hour before.

One day at lunch, Devin and other feminist club members passed out bags with condoms and sexual health information on the SMC quad.

Two weeks after I graduated, I started my first class. I was nervous that the coursework would be too difficult or that the professor’s way of teaching would be drastically different from what I was used to in high school. Since it was a remedial math class it was easy but I braced myself for a harder fall semester. To my surprise, my high school had taught me a lot. The books I read my freshman year of high school were repeated in my English 1 and 2 courses. I ended my first semester with a 4.0 and was very proud that my plan was working.

My biggest worry during that first year was whether I would be able to get the classes I wanted or needed. I had heard horror stories about people who were only able to enroll in one class and had to try to add others on the first day. But luckily—with the exception of a sociology class that I couldn’t get into—I didn’t face these problems.

One of the best things about attending a community college has been the opportunity to take classes that sound interesting. My friends who attend Cal States or UCs restrict themselves to classes they’re required to take to graduate or for their majors. They feel that taking a class for fun would make it take longer to graduate, which would make college more expensive. Although the price has increased at SMC—from $26 to $36 a unit—I can still afford to take classes just because I am interested in them.

I discovered an interest in fighting for equality

When I enrolled at Santa Monica, I had no idea that I had a passion for women’s studies. A friend of mine took women’s studies his first year and I was extremely jealous that he called himself a feminist when I didn’t know what “feminist” actually meant. I thought it meant equality for women. I took my first women’s studies class during the fall of my first year at SMC and I’ve taken one more since. I’ve become a full-blown feminist who doesn’t just fight for women’s rights but the rights of people who suffer from various forms of oppression. I’ve decided that when I apply to a four-year university I will minor in women’s studies.

Although I loved being able to choose classes that interested me, I was still worried that going to SMC meant I would miss out on an exciting college life and that the students wouldn’t be involved in clubs or care about the school. A teacher I respected in high school had talked down about students who attended community college, saying that they only went because their parents would kick them out if they didn’t go.

I went to my classes, got my 3.7 GPA and joined enough clubs to get some community service hours. But I wasn’t planning to make lots of friends because I feared that I would become someone who treated SMC like high school and went to class just to socialize. It was easy not to get involved—students in my classes never mentioned on-campus groups. So I became what I was afraid of, the stereotypical community college student who wasn’t involved.

I would go to class and hang out with D’arcy, the one friend I met during my summer class. But it was lonely eating by myself and not what I expected from the “college experience.” I had imagined college as hanging out between classes with my friends and having group study sessions. And while that happened sometimes, it was nothing like what my friends from high school told me about their college lives, like staying up until 3 a.m. studying with their roommates. I became Facebook friends with some classmates but we never made plans to hang out outside of school.

I wanted to be more involved

Toward the end of fall semester, I was tired of being alone at school and I decided to learn more about what was happening on campus. D’arcy and I attended Club Row—an event where clubs set up tables on the quad to attract new members. D’arcy, who is a year older than me and transferring to UCLA, told me that the UCs would want more than just a few hours of community service. I signed up for several clubs. But I wasn’t sure I would have much to contribute so I didn’t go to the meetings and continued to eat lunch alone.

Early in spring semester, the vice president of the feminist club came to my women’s studies class to announce their first meeting. The way she passionately talked about the club’s goals, I was able to see myself participating. I went to the meeting and learned about how the club wanted to bring better comprehensive reproductive health care to campus. One way they did this was to bring attention to pregnancy centers that target women who have unplanned pregnancies. On billboards, the clinics advertise “Pregnant? Scared? We can help” and list a phone number. But they don’t offer unbiased, medically sound services and often don’t tell women about the option of abortion when dealing with an unplanned pregnancy. A woman I work with went to one of these clinics and they gave her literature that said abortion was wrong and led to breast cancer as well as other things that are medically false.

After attending the meeting I was inspired by the students’ passion for activism and realized that this was what my college experience had been lacking. I began attending the weekly meetings and after the president had to step down because of work hours, I took over the position.

Since then, we’ve campaigned to help re-elect U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer and hosted a Domestic Violence Awareness week. We raised awareness of violence against women by having anyone on campus who had something to share write a message on a shirt and hang it on a clothesline on the quad. We hung 67 shirts. People’s messages ranged from “Violence never equals love” to personal stories about their experiences with domestic violence and how they survived it. Right now we’re working on getting more comprehensive reproductive health care such as birth control and STD/HIV testing on campus. Along with this, we want to better publicize the days that the Westside Family Health Center is on campus doing educational workshops.

Through my work with this club, I have been able to work with other student leaders and professors. I’ve become the one who people turn to for advice on how to bring feminism into other school events, such as Earth Week. It’s awesome when others recognize you and ask for your help with their club. The Latino Student Union wanted me to represent the feminist club during César Chávez Day. They asked me to talk about Dolores Huerta, who worked closely with Cesar Chavez. I’ve also been asked to give statements during student rallies against the budget cuts at SMC. Before getting involved, I never knew that community college had such active students.

As California public colleges face extreme budget cuts, it seems like community colleges are being hit especially hard. There have already been tuition increases and there are threats of the cost going up to $66 a unit. During the time I have been here, it has become more difficult to get classes. Several of my classes, from economics to photography to Spanish, have been overcrowded with 40 additional people trying to add during the first week. The overcrowding can sometimes be distracting.

I’m proud that we’re fighting for our education

SMC canceled its Winter 2011 session (classes that are taught for six weeks between fall and spring semesters), and this upcoming summer session is getting cut in half, and could still be eliminated. Even more frustrating is the fact that while administrators have their minds set on cutting classes, professors and school resources, they are unwilling to hear students’ ideas, such as lowering administrators’ salaries. But even though I’m worried about how this will affect my education, there has been a positive: students are joining together and I no longer think that the students here are apathetic.

It’s been inspiring to see students rally together or travel to Sacramento to protest or meet with the president of SMC. We have realized that we deserve an education without the cost nearly doubling.

At community college, I have been able to build my own network of feminist faculty, staff and students and we have had the opportunity to plan school-wide events—something I thought happened only at “real colleges.” I have never regretted my decision to attend SMC. I am really grateful I was given this opportunity to prepare for a four-year school.


Illustration by Alison Lee, 15, Whitney HS (Cerritos)

Teens figure out what they’re going to do after high school. Deciding what to do after you graduate is a huge step in your lives. Your teachers are probably telling you to go to college. But what do you want to do? You might wonder whether you’re even ready for college or want to consider working. In this economy are there more sensible options than a four-year university, like community college or the military? Check out how three L.A. Youth writers are trying to determine “What’s next?” in their lives.
I don’t feel ready
Ernesto worries he won’t succeed at college, but wonders if he can support himself without a degree. lThe military is my path to nursing
The Army Reserve is going to pay for school so Caitlin can become a nurse.

Making the most of community college
Devin was disappointed to be going to SMC, but getting involved has shown her it has a lot to offer.

Other stories by this writer:

A secret connection
A website of secrets sent in by anonymous people helped Devin, 16, deal with family problems. (September 2007)