Many things keep students from going directly to a 4-year university. Some believe that their grades are too low and do not even apply. Some need to stay at home, work, or want to take a break from school. And some decide on a 2-year college in order to pay the lower tuition. Regardless of the reason, community colleges might offer a second chance to continue an education or restart a career. In this article, I describe my experience as a community college and transfer student and offer advice for students who are considering a similar path.

Step One: From High School to College (almost)

Two years after graduating from high school, I decided to continue my education. I was not at all interested in applying to a large university, paying application fees, and waiting months for an admission letter. Instead, I chose to attend a local 2-year college in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.

Broward Community College's (BCC's) application and registration process took no more than a day. The many choices for lecture times fit in well with my job schedule. The college's proximity allowed me to continue living with my mother and sister. And the small class sizes and the availability of the professors eased my transition back into the lecture-homework-test routine. Furthermore, my fellow students were of all ages and ethnicities, a rich and varied environment that could easily accommodate me, a Latina.

However, the vast selection of classes made it a bit complicated to keep my goal--getting a degree in physics or math or both--in mind. I had to learn to take control of my studies. A 2-year college was the logical middle step from high school to university. It gave me the opportunity to decide what to study and learn how to do it without having to worry about living independently.

Step Two: From a 2-Year to a 4-Year College

The transition from a 2-year to a 4-year college is tricky. Many universities will take care of freshmen students until they become acquainted with the campus and what is expected of them. On the other hand, a transfer student enters as a junior. Nontransfer juniors already know how everything works and where everything is on campus. As a new transfer student to the University of California, Berkeley, I needed to address several key questions: Where are the bookstore, library, and cafeteria? Where are students supposed to go for help with counseling or mentoring? Where can you find information about student employment on campus? What are the most active student organizations? In addition, when you transfer far away from home you have to get a new set of friends from a class that has already been interacting for a couple of years. Transfer students are expected to miraculously manage with little or no mentoring from the university.

I had been warned that my grades might suffer when transferring schools. The head of the Honors Program at BCC had conducted an informal study focusing on how the program's students fared after moving on to universities. She concluded that usually their grades decreased in the first year and then gradually increased, ending higher than the average in their graduating class. Accordingly, my grades fell during my first semester at the 4-year college, improved slightly in the second, and continued increasing thereafter. I graduated, as predicted, with an excellent GPA.

What Could Have Been Different?

Although I expected setbacks, there were areas in which, in hindsight, I realize I could have prevented them. For example, it is important to properly research the 4-year institution before transferring. Does it have a supportive environment? What percentage of the undergraduate students actually graduate? What percentage are minorities? If possible, I would definitely advise you to visit campuses before you decide where to go. If that's not possible, you should make phone calls, ask questions, and try to get in contact with other transfer students. Your career is an investment. You want to get the best education for your money. If I had to do it again, I would move 1 or 2 weeks before classes started to familiarize myself with the neighborhood and campus. I would look for professional organizations or activity clubs that interest me. Also, I would form study groups from the very first day.

Can You Continue Working?

If you need to work, make sure that it is in the university or in an environment where they frequently hire students. If possible, save enough money to avoid working from the start. It is also a good idea to ask in the financial aid office about work-study opportunities. It helps to have a work-study award when looking for an on-campus job.

One mistake I made was not to look for help from institutional organizations. In the first semester, I was working more than 30 hours per week and could hardly keep up with homework. Late in my second semester, I went to see the director of Berkeley's then affirmative action program. I mentioned how badly I was doing in my first year. She helped me work out a solution: a work-study job tutoring freshman physics students with a higher salary and more flexible hours than the one I had. Tutoring brought many other benefits. It boosted my morale and my confidence in my abilities.

Final Thoughts

Through the affirmative action director I became aware of many other opportunities. For example, I joined the Society for the Advancement of Chicano, Latino, and Native Americans in the Sciences ( SACNAS), where I am now an elected student board member. The first two semesters at Berkeley would have been a lot easier if I already had the right job and the kind of support that I derived from the organizations that I joined.

I now believe that I also suffered from a lack of perspective. I had troubles but perhaps they seemed larger than they were. Moving across the country and far away from family and friends may have affected me more than I expected it would. And the B grades I received during my first two semesters were by no definition failing grades. Luckily, BCC prepared me well academically. In the end, I graduated with a double major in physics and mathematics. I was admitted into the physics graduate program at the State University of New York, Stony Brook, with a fellowship. Now, I am an ABD (all but dissertation) fifth-year Ph.D. student doing my thesis research in atomic physics.

For further information, please e-mail Juana I. Rudati at juana.rudati@sunysb.edu.