The Case For Community College

NCAS
NCAS Group, photo used with permission.

Students are lucky if they can get one truly influential professor in their lives. I’ve had countless. I hold close to my heart the professors who taught me way more than the subject at hand. I remember so vividly those moments when I knew my life was forever changed by what I had learned: when Jeff Baker talked about slippery slopes and I knew I would never again construct flawed arguments, when Gary Ogden talked about evolution and it resonated to the core of my being, when Ranford Hopkins made me realize that the first action against racism is to acknowledge it still exists.

What do these professors have in common? They were all community college professors. While I’ve had many very smart professors in my undergraduate and graduate programs at well-reputed universities, I’ve actually had more great professors in two years of community college than in the rest of my academic career combined. Community college professors are some of the most caring, passionate, and inspired bunch I’ve had the chance to meet and I am forever grateful my path led me through community college rather than a “better” big name school.

Community college had such a meaningful impact on who I am today that I am excited to see it is shedding the negative connotation often associated with it. A Sallie Mae study, How America Pays For College 2011, stated “high-income families increased enrollment in the lowest cost institutions, two-year public colleges, from 12 percent attending these types of colleges in academic year 2009-2010 to 22 percent in 2010-2011. This increase corresponds with a drop in enrollment in four-year public colleges, where 56 percent were enrolled in 2009-2010 compared with 48 percent in 2010-2011.”

NCAS
NCAS Students, photo used with permission.

Just as I was contemplating these things, I saw a NASA news release about the winners of the National Community College Aerospace Scholars (NCAS) program. Here’s how the program works: From all the students who apply, NCAS makes an initial selection of students who will participate in an interactive web-based activities to design and plan a robotic mission to Mars. From the results of the activities, NCAS selects the final students who will work on a three-day project at NASA.

While at NASA, as described in the press release, the students will form teams that “will establish fictional companies pursuing Mars exploration. Each team will develop, design and build a prototype rover, then use their prototypes to navigate a course, collect rocks and water and return to a home base.”

Not only does this project sound really fun, turns out it’s also a well-kept secret. I chatted with NCAS representative Deborah Hutchings, a NASA Aerospace Scholars Education Specialist, about this great opportunity. In 2011, they received 230 applications, from which 92 students were selected for the final all-expenses-paid trip to NASA. I like those odds!

The program has been offered for 10 years in Texas, and three years nationally. I asked Deborah why NASA believes in pursuing community college students.

Almost half the students in higher education across the nation are community college students. These students often are not given the same opportunities that students at four-year schools have. This program encourages these students to maintain a relationship with NASA as they return to school and eventually transfer to a four-year school to complete a STEM degree. Our hope is that they will then return to NASA as either an intern, co-op or full time employee.

Deborah in turn connected me with an alumni from this program, Jennifer Hembd. A mom no less! Jennifer decided to attend community college to save money on core classes. She was able to take many classes online, which allowed her to do the school work in the evening after her kids went to bed and avoid the additional expense of day care. It was her Introduction to Digital Media professor who shared the NCAS program with the class. Jennifer applied, got selected, and had a great time at NASA!

It was by far one of the most incredible experiences I have ever had. Since I was very little I have always been fascinated with NASA but never thought I would ever be able to be a part of something so great. It was amazing to learn all that I did about both NASA and the future plans for missions to Mars by doing the written assignments for the program, and the onsite portion (my group went to Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville Alabama) was fantastic! Not only was the program amazing, but I met some really great people from all over the country which I still speak with on a regular basis.

Curious to see if she loved community college as much as I did, I asked her how she thinks her community college experience rated against students who went to four-year colleges.

I am extremely happy that I started out at a community college. Being a nontraditional student, I feel it helped me to acclimate back into the academic process. Attending community college has opened up a plethora of opportunities to me and I have been fortunate enough to make some amazing faculty contacts, which I believe is much harder to do at larger schools.

Jennifer is now an intern at NASA, more specifically in the Information Resources Directorate at Johnson Space Center. There she work on the Shuttle Retirement Project where she archives all media aspects of the shuttle program and prepares to send that information to the National Archives.

If you are or know a community college student who would be interested in this program, applications for the next cycle are open until June 6th, 2012, so apply now!

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Ariane is a programmer married to another programmer. Together they have two little girls who don't stand a chance against their nerdy lineage. Ariane can also be found writing about STEM travel at Geekling's Guide to the Galaxy.