Editor’s Note: Melissa Blake is a freelance writer and blogger from Illinois. She covers disability rights and women’s issues and has written for The New York Times, Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping, Glamour and Racked among others. Read her blog, So About What I Said, and follow her on Twitter. The views expressed in this commentary are solely hers.
When I started college at 19, I was timid and unsure of the big world ahead of me.
Fast-forward two years later and I felt like a different person: More confident, more self-assured and more determined than ever to pursue a degree in journalism after a high school hobby grew into a full-fledged passion.
The positive changes were remarkable, and I credit much of my transformation to one thing: My education at a community college.
Sadly, though, community colleges don’t hold much value, at least if you listen to President Donald Trump. Last week, during a speech at an Ohio training facility for construction apprentices, he spoke of his desire to return to the days of vocational schools while simultaneously underscoring the valuable role community colleges play in society.
“I don’t know what that means, a community college,” Trump told the crowd in Richfield, Ohio. “Call it vocational and technical. People know what that means. They don’t know what a community college means.”
In the world of Trump quotes, this was a pretty blink-and-you-missed it one, but his words were misguided at best and incredibly destructive at worst. For Trump to display such casual ignorance shows a disregard that is nothing short of a grave disservice to the people who seek a quality education there.
And the number of people who do is not a small one in the slightest. According to the College Board, which tracks trends in higher education, in 2014 more than 40% of all undergraduate students were enrolled in a community college.
So what exactly does “community college” mean? Many things to many people. Different things to different people. It means a chance for a single parent who works full-time to take night classes and work toward a degree. It means someone who’s retired can experience the excitement of continuing education classes. It means someone fresh out of high school can save money on tuition and explore their options while taking general education classes at a two-year college.
My community college education gave me a solid foundation right from the beginning. It gave me room to grow, to learn about myself and to develop skills – both academic skills and life skills – that I would carry with me even after I left those hallowed halls and found myself in the “real world.” And things like smaller class sizes and more one-on-one interaction with instructors made me realize that solid foundation was unique; I doubt I would have had the same experience if I started at a four-year university right out of high school.
And I doubt I’d be the writer I am today if it weren’t for the time I spent as a staff writer (and later, editor-in-chief) of my college’s student newspaper. I was able to get hands-on experience in all facets of newspaper production, from writing to interviewing sources to editing to design, as well as learning leadership skills that extended far beyond the classroom.
Maybe that’s why, some six years after I graduated, I found myself walking those old, familiar halls of my community college once again. Only this time, I was no longer a student, but an adjunct faculty member. I was back as the faculty adviser to the student newspaper – yes, the same newspaper I worked on when I was a student. I was training the next generation of student journalists. In a way, it felt like everything was falling into place just as it should. It felt like everything had come full circle and I was home again.
That is the power and meaning of community college. Because everything I learned in those couple years have molded and shaped me into the person I am today. I’ve carried those lessons with me.
My community college turns 50 this year. Its longevity speaks volumes, as do the memories I’ve carried with me for almost two decades.
As Alia Wong wrote recently in “The Atlantic,” the erroneous assumption Trump made in his speech “was that community colleges and vocational schools haven’t been able to and can’t exist alongside each other – a misunderstanding that further underappreciates an already underappreciated component of American education.”
Get our free weekly newsletter
Maybe that’s the beauty of it right there: Community colleges serve a variety of purposes, all of which benefit our present and future. Education, in all its forms, is never a waste of time. Taking steps to learn something and to better yourself is always a worthwhile endeavor. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.