By Ryan Liu
Growing up, I listened to my parents tell me how the only thing that can’t be taken away from you is an education. I could understand their perspective. When my mother fled the Cambodian genocide and when my father immigrated from Argentina, they left behind everything they knew. While they never got a higher education, they believed that an education could give anyone a better life. This belief, ingrained in me early on, led me to become a first-generation college student. And next year, I’ll be graduating from Yale.
However, my college experience didn’t start at the Ivy League. It started at Pasadena City College, a community college in California. After graduating high school, I considered college. But a higher education seemed inaccessible. I came from a low-income background. I grew up eating reduced-price meals in school and helping my father transport vending machines around Los Angeles. Until college, I shared a bed with two family members. I knew how a higher education could provide a better life, but I was unsure if I could afford it.
Community college looked like an option, but I was unsure. There was a stigma around community colleges. I decided to visit the campus. Immediately, I realized how wrong this stigma was. Walking around campus, I saw how focused everyone was on their education. How caring the professors were. How this campus gave everyone, dedicated to a better life, the opportunity to reach it. I became certain that community college was the right choice for me.
Community college showed me how anything was possible. I was inspired by my classmates. To my left in class, there would be a veteran, who returned to school after a decade of service. To my right, there would be a single mother, who wakes up at 6 a.m. to take her child to school, goes to work, and attends classes. In front of me, there would be an immigrant, like my parents, who was striving to forge a brighter future.
When I was in high school, Yale was never on my radar. I just wanted to be the first in my family to go to college. Community college gave me that opportunity and more. My community college classmates and their constant perseverance towards achieving a better life inspired me to aim high. The support and mentorship of my community college professors taught me the skills necessary to reach my goals. And two years after I took my first steps onto campus, I graduated from Pasadena City College as valedictorian and as a Jack Kent Cooke Foundation scholar with a full ride to Yale.
Even though I graduated from community college two years ago, I still often think about how much community college gave me. Community college gave me the means to help at home, while pursuing a degree. Community college allowed me to work three jobs, while finishing my general education requirements. Community college gave me a shot. And I wouldn’t be at Yale, or doing well there, if it wasn’t for community college.
Above all, community college made me a better person. It made me strive to give back, after how much community college gave me. That’s why this summer, I’m working on the College Promise Campaign, a national initiative that’s building support for states and localities to provide free community college through “College Promise” programs, which waive tuition and fees for hard-working students. New Promise programs are emerging every year. Programs vary in structure and how they’re funded, but they all share the same commitment to provide universal higher education.
In 2014, Republican Governor Bill Haslam signed the Tennessee Promise, which provided free community college for high school graduates. After the program’s success, the state expanded free community college for every adult this year. In Utah, students can access free community college through the Salt Lake Community College Promise. In my state, California, more than 50 programs are now underway in communities from San Francisco to Barstow. From the hills of Tennessee, to the Great Salt Lake, to the coast of California, and beyond, more and more students are getting the opportunity to change their lives through higher education.
This trend has reached home. A few weeks ago, my alma mater announced its own program: the Pasadena City College Promise, which will make the first year of community college free for high school graduates in the area. I’m excited that more students can now access community college.
Next spring, I’m graduating from Yale. I owe it to my family, classmates, and professors. But, I also owe it to community college. Without community college, I wouldn’t be where I am today. My parents always said that the only thing that can’t be taken away is an education. The best gift we can give to students is a promise that if they work hard, they can have the same opportunity that I had to attain a higher education – and a better life.