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Life in a Community College: To the Top and Back Again (without the debt)

January 5, 2017

I was inspired to write this article after reading Alyssa Arriaga’s recent publication in the ‘Life in College’ section of OneDublin; I, too, took the road less traveled and went to a community college after high school. The only difference is that I made a brief stop at a university first.

The most ironic thing about my current enrollment at Diablo Valley College, a community college nestled in Pleasant Hill right around the corner from an In-N-Out and across the street from a Safeway, is that I used to be somebody who looked down on junior colleges. I thought of it as a second high school, or a place that people went to when they couldn’t get into a four-year university. I was raised with the expectation of my eventual acceptance into a four-year university, an expectation that was met my senior year of high school. I had everything the colleges wanted: high test scores, a solid transcript, four years in a sport. I was the president of a club and a Girl Scout. I got into every school I applied to, much to my excitement. It felt like all of my hard work in those AP classes and those hours of sleep lost to make that last project excellent was worth it, because I had gotten a small pile of acceptance letters. I never thought of the cost of any school. I knew college was expensive, but it was what I had been working for, right? Why would I think about anything other than what was to come?


I chose to attend the University of Portland in Portland, Oregon. It was an excellent school, with an English program that promised me internships and publications. The city of Portland was the perfect fit for me. Everything seemed to be coming together. I even got an award letter in the mail: a prestigious academic scholarship of about $20,000 a year. A lot of my classmates were getting into the various University of California campuses, which range around $30,000 a year, so I was feeling pretty lucky. Little did I know that the actual tuition of the University of Portland was a ripe $57,540 a year. Suddenly, that $20,000 didn’t look like too much, especially when I factored in having a younger sister only four years behind me, and the cost of living in California. There was a fleeting moment of worry that was quickly dashed away by the excitement of graduation and college life.

I stayed in my cloud of college-related excitement for many months. I spent my first month in Portland in total bliss; I was living my dream. Classes were difficult, but enjoyable. I was making friends, and developing relationships. I loved the weather, and the cookies from the Commons. Everything was perfect, until I got my first loan statement. It came in an envelope not unlike the one my acceptance letter came in. Suddenly, the cost of tuition was put into perspective. I was putting not only myself, but my parents, into almost $200,000 worth of debt. It was Thanksgiving that I decided to leave the University of Portland, with a heavy heart and a lot of bitterness. I felt as though something was being taken away from me, something I had worked for. Most of all, I felt defeated; many of my friends at the University of Portland were wealthier than me, something I didn’t realize until I had to tell them I couldn’t afford to go to school with them anymore.

I left the University of Portland after my winter finals, already enrolled at Diablo Valley College. I entered my first day at DVC in a dark cloud, convinced nothing would ever be as good as a university. I viewed it solely as a pit stop to get to the “real stuff”. I wanted out as fast as I could get. Now, as I enter my last semester at DVC before transfering, I can proudly say that I have learned more about myself in these last months on that campus than I would have ever dreamed.

To any students considering junior college as an option, I feel it is my duty to mention these things. There are things no one mentions when they talk about going to community college. No one talks about the commute; I drive 250 miles a week, no small fee on my gas tank, and spend about an hour to two hours in the car depending on traffic. It is lonely. In my case, all of my friends from high school had gone away to college, and I was still at home. I felt, and still do feel at times, completely alone. A community college is also a commuter school, so the opportunities for social interaction are few and far between. It’s always going to seem like people are having more fun than you, but remember, they’re having about $30,000 worth of more fun than you. Living at home isn’t easy, either. It’s an awkward balance of trying to figure out your own self under the ever-watchful gaze of your parents.

There are other things that no one talks about. For instance, I have never had a class larger than 40. All of my professors have known me by name. I also know how to manage my time more effectively than ever. Commuting, going to school, and working forces habits that help you out in the long run. I’ve had opportunities to begin saving for tuition at a four-year university, and have gained (almost) total financial independence. Junior college has exposed me to people of all different backgrounds, everything from students who barely graduated high school, to the next NASA engineers, to elderly people going after an education because no one is too old to learn.

At the end of the day, I know what I have done to get myself to this point. I know Portland isn’t going away, and I know that my new chapter at the University of California, Santa Cruz, will be just as rainy and filled with just as many granola people as before. Community college isn’t the end of the world, nor the end of the road; it’s a viable option that can further students to their maximum potential just like any other learning institution. It’s just a lot cheaper, that’s all.

Courtney Varela is currently pursuing a B.A. in Political Science and a B.A. in English
Associates of Arts Degree in English. At the Dublin High School Class of 2015 Senior Awards Night Courtney was awarded the President’s Silver Award for Outstanding Achievement in Mathematics.

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  1. January 6, 2017 8:58 am

    On behalf of the Contra Costa Community College District, which includes Diablo Valley College, we want to thank Courtney Varela for sharing her experience at a community college. It is our mission to provide outstanding learning opportunities for all of our students, and we appreciate hearing success stories from our students.

  2. Lily permalink
    February 23, 2017 3:26 pm

    I wrote about community college success stories and love to hear how community college propels students to reach their goals. Congrats to Courtney! You did it your way!

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