By Jennifer Gottesfeld, 19, Santa Monica College
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After studying archeology in Ecuador for a Santa Monica College class, Jennifer Gottesfeld, 19, toured these ruins of the Incan fortress Machu Picchu in Peru with classmates.
Photo by Yekta Nikou, 23

I graduated from Beverly Hills High School in June 2004. All of my friends knew where they were going to be for the next four years—Yale, Berkeley, Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania, to name a few. And then there was me. I hadn’t even applied to college.

There were many reasons that I had decided not to apply: money, fear of rejection, a boyfriend and parents who wanted me to stay in Los Angeles (even though my dream was to go far away). Also, while my high school GPA came out to a 3.7, that wasn’t going to guarantee me admission into elite colleges like Columbia or Haverford, which were the places that I really wanted to go to. There was also the problem of having no idea what I wanted to do with my life or what I wanted to major in. So I didn’t even know what colleges to look at.

Instead, while everyone was applying to their four-year universities, I decided to skip that process and go to Santa Monica College (SMC), a two-year community college.

As my first semester of college approached, I became increasingly depressed. My friends were ready to move out of their homes and into dorms. And then there was me, not going anywhere, still living with the folks, feeling like nothing was changing. It was scary knowing that I still needed to worry about impressing admissions officers in a couple years so I could transfer to a four-year college. This meant I still needed to be concerned with getting perfect grades, so that I’d be accepted into the schools I wanted to go to. Everyone else was done with all of that drama that you’re supposed to leave behind when you graduate high school.

I began SMC in fall 2004, feeling pessimistic about my future. I felt embarrassed telling people that I went to a community college, especially when all of my friends were going to prestigious universities. I saw the looks on people’s faces when I responded to their eager question: "And where are you going to college?" Every time I said "SMC," their faces would drop. They nodded their heads with forced smiles that were really grimaces, and said, "ooohhh," very slowly. It was definitely a conversation killer. But I knew that my goal was to transfer and that one day I would be somewhere else and no one would ever have to know that I went to a community college.

That semester, I took political science, philosophy, anthropology and anything else that sounded interesting to figure out what to major in. I was amazed at the variety of classes offered at SMC, and how similar they were to the classes that my friends were taking elsewhere. I realized that while they were experimenting with their interests for somewhere between $17,000 to $45,000 a year (including tuition, housing, food and expenses), I was doing the same thing for about $2,500, including tuition and books.

As the semester progressed, I started to feel better. I loved my teachers, most of whom still teach, or at one time taught, at UCLA or USC or other major universities. They were all knowledgeable and inspiring and dedicated. Since class sizes were only 25 to 40 people, most teachers knew my name by the second or third day of class. I was hearing from my friends at Yale and Berkeley that they had intro classes with 200 to 500 students in a lecture hall. When I referred to my anthropology teacher, whom I had befriended over the semester, as "John," my friend from Berkeley laughed and said that she had never been closer than 30 feet to her anthropology teacher.

There are, of course, many students who aren’t as enthusiastic about learning as I am. They don’t come to class prepared; they leave in the middle of lectures and have nothing to add to class discussions. The main thing about community college is taking advantage of the resources offered. I make it a point to hang out with my teachers during their office hours, when students can discuss any questions one-on-one with their professors.

I met people through clubs and activities

Jennifer Gottesfeld, 19, had a chance to feed a kangaroo at the zoo while visiting Australia to study marine biology and intercultural communications for an SMC class.

The social scene at SMC sucked, and at first I felt very lonely. While it is difficult at a community college to meet people who share the same interests and ambitions as you, I slowly began to make friends with people who seemed to be like me, attentive and interested in class discussions. They were also involved in political clubs and the newspaper and we shared the same dream of attending a great university. Now, two semesters later, I am still friends with all of these people and I hope to be in contact with them long after we leave SMC. Though I made only a handful of close friends, I found that my high school friends at other colleges were having the same experience. While there are lots of people to meet at any school, you make only a few really close friends.

One huge problem with SMC is parking. There are thousands more students than there are parking spaces, and so I usually get to school at least an hour before my classes start to make sure that I get a space. Sometimes I don’t, though, and I have to miss class.

Another thing I noticed was that my high school friends were taking advantage of their newfound freedom, drinking and going out all night and barely studying. Meanwhile, I was working extremely hard, making sure that I was going to get straight A’s so that I could transfer. At first I was jealous and thought that my situation was dismal. But I realized that I was learning about philosophers like Immanuel Kant and Karl Marx. I was being enlightened about the arguments for and against God. I even found a major—anthropology—while the major acquisition my friends made was their newly acquired taste for alcohol.

I was starting to get the feel for a place where I thought I’d never be comfortable, but there were some obstacles that were making me nervous. There were so many interesting classes for such a great price ($26 a unit this semester) that it was hard to stay focused on the general education track to fulfill my requirements. I was tempted by classes in silk screening, sculpture, interpretive dance, singing and martial arts. But I knew that if I didn’t want to get stuck, I would need to stick to my strict schedule.

As my first semester was coming to a close, a wonderful opportunity to study overseas came up. SMC was offering a trip to Australia with a focus on marine biology and intercultural communications. We would be in Australia a little less than a month during winter break, spending two weeks studying at the University of Sydney, and the remainder of the time on an island less than a mile in diameter that was surrounded by the Great Barrier Reef. While I wasn’t planning on majoring in marine bio or communications, I did need a science class and was interested in communications so I jumped at the opportunity. My semester in Australia cost $5,000 and I earned seven credits.

My trip to Australia was one of the most memorable experiences of my life. I got to run around Sydney with three hours of sleep a night, going to school in the morning, the beach in the afternoon, doing homework in the evening and partying all night long. On the Barrier Reef we snorkeled almost every day, observing the marine life. The professors were not just our teachers, but our friends. We sat in their hotel rooms and cried about missing friends and parents and significant others. And not only did I learn massive amounts of information about everything from the moon’s effect on the tides to the characteristics of different sects of the aboriginal tribes in the outback, I also got a chance to be on my own, which was the only thing I was really longing for.

All of my friends were jealous. They were sitting in intro classes while I was in Australia. I came back from Australia with more direction. I began second semester charged. I decided that my goal was to transfer to an Ivy League school, and that going to a community college wouldn’t stop me from reaching any of my goals.

The study abroad opportunities at SMC are invaluable. After Australia I knew that I wanted to travel, and I also knew that a great way to do that was by studying abroad. So when the chance to join a summer archeological dig in Ecuador and tour ruins in Peru came up, I made sure I was on the list to go. I spent summer semester in South America for around $3,500. The time I spent there changed my life and perspective on everything. I realized all the things I could live without. Cell phones, TVs, computers, even flushing toilets and hot water seem more like luxuries than necessities to me now. I can appreciate a more slow-paced and simple life, that is not full of the material goods that are thrown at us in America.

I am now in my third semester at SMC. I took so many classes that I’ll be done in a year-and-a-half (instead of two years), so I have decided to spend this spring semester studying in Israel.

Overall I’ve realized that SMC is not a terrible place. I came to look at it like an airport. It wasn’t somewhere that I was planning on staying. It’s more like an in-between point, somewhere that I had to go to get somewhere else. It is really such a shame that community colleges have such a stigma attached to them. They really do have so much to offer, and they are being overlooked. So if you are debating what to do for college, take another look at community college—it may be the perfect connecting flight!