When I think of the new life the Community College of Philadelphia infused into Whitney Lopez and Dawn-Stacey Joyner, the famous line from the age-old poem "The New Colossus" pops up. You know, the one that's mounted on a plaque at the Statue of Liberty that reads: "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. ..."
It may sound corny, but freedom is what CCP provided for Lopez and Joyner, who graduated with associate's degrees last week. Lopez, 26, earned a full ride to Bryn Mawr, and Joyner, 45, has been accepted to the University of Pennsylvania.
Until they connected with CCP, college had made them tired — tired of struggling even though they knew they were capable of achieving. And while they understood intellectually that higher education was their ticket to freedom, the hard truth was that they were too poor to afford college on their own.
Education may mean freedom, but higher education is far from free. In this bleak jobs market, the cost of a bachelor's degree can bankrupt a family and financially cripple a graduate before she even gets a job. And just think if Congress can't break yet another stalemate, which means interest rates on student loans could double. Forget a vacation. Heck, you might even have to nix a staycation.
Makes sense that more and more students are turning to community colleges as the smart, financially sound choice. I mean, who wouldn't want to earn a four-year degree for half the price? CCP remains the largest public institution of higher learning in Philadelphia, with an enrollment that peaked at 38,000 students during 2009-10, the year after the recession hit.
"Our students tend to be low-income to lower-middle class," CCP president Stephen M. Curtis explains, "so they will frequently take the job first" instead of going to college.
But when the economy is poor? "They will come to us because they can't be competitive enough" in the job market.
The beauty of community colleges is that success can be defined in many different ways. CCP provides pathways for everyone, from the aspiring dental hygienist to the sign-language interpreters, and traditional transfer students.
And then there are nontraditional students like Lopez and Joyner who needed a boost financially and inspirationally. When it came to their educational goals, community college allowed them to breathe freely.
Different routes to success
Lopez's and Joyner's routes to Community College of Philadelphia couldn't be more different.
Lopez came from an family of educational strivers in New York who conditioned her to think she was better than a community college.
"I realize now that that was one of the biggest things I could fool myself into believing," says Lopez, an affable young woman with a cherubic face and a Betty Rubble laugh.
Lopez, who served as president of Phi Theta Kappa, the community college honor society, graduated from CCP with a 4.0 grade-point average, quite a turnaround from her days at Temple, where she originally started and lasted all of two years. She majored in social life. To keep her parents from paying for her failing grades, she dropped out.
"They pretty much told me not to come back," Lopez says of her disappointed folks.
Joyner, went to Penn State Abington after graduating from Little Flower High School in 1984. At Penn State, it wasn't so much her inability to do the work as it was her inability to focus in large, impersonal classes. And it seemed like every time she'd buckle down, a family crisis would erupt: One brother imprisoned, another on crack, her widowed mother working too hard to care.
"My family wasn't big on the school thing," says Joyner. "It's always been my thing."
Joyner enrolled at CCP in 1996 and took classes off and on between jobs for a decade before coming back for good two years ago. Her intention was to pass the eight courses remaining to earn her associate's degree, no more, no less.
That was until she took Lisa Handler's sociology class.
"I wanted to know everything about sociology," Joyner says. "I asked Dr. Handler, 'How do I know what you know, and what do I have to do to know it?' "
Now both Joyner and Lopez, who is majoring in anthropology and Africana studies, intend to get their Ph.D. s. Not only did community college give them the confidence, it gave them the cash: Public and private donors supported them with Community College of Philadelphia Foundation scholarships. The foundation has raised over than $7.5 million for scholarships since 2010.
Lopez says her involvement as a student leader helped challenge her to balance academic life and commitment to community that she realized she'd always had.
"I was on several committees that would ask me my opinions on things," she said. "It made me feel like I made up for the mistakes that I had made — like I mattered."