Last night I unfortunately missed the premiere of NBC's "Community." The sitcom focuses on a lawyer who returns to community college because his degree wasn't real. Hijinks ensue. Critics give it decent reviews, and the show also marks the return of Chevy Chase to the land of the living (if he can be in this, is it too much to ask for him to get the lead role in the long-rumored remake of "Fletch?").
Community college advocates expressed concern that the show would portray two-year schools in an unflattering light. In the same way PETA writes letters of protest whenever a celebrity dons a fur coat or a cow is milked against its will, I pictured community college leaders penning notes of disappointment and outrage to NBC. Only they'd be misspelled...because they're from community colleges! (Could be a decent joke for the new show, NBC.)
I attended Worthington Community College in southwestern Minnesota for two years. Nearly everyone on my father's side of the family attended WCC, which now carries the longer and geographically vague name Minnesota West Community and Technical College. Louise took classes at a community college while pursuing her nursing degree. Over the years, I've heard pretty much every joke possible about two-year schools. I've made some of my own.
When people ask where I went to school, I say "St. John's. The Minnesota one," and will only occasionally mention that my college life started at a JUCO. Community colleges often still remain more punchline than destination.
And my time at WCC included many bizarre moments that might only be possible at two-year institutions. A chronically confused professor of mine once asked a question that a student answered, "I think it was Teddy Roosevelt." To which she replied, "No, no, it was Theodore Roosevelt." I engaged in passionate debates in history class with a 45-year-old woman who had three kids and thought she knew everything. She might have been right.
Housing choices were limited. No dorms. Sophomore year I lived with four other guys in a house that had four bedrooms. I discovered that only after agreeing to move in. For nine months I slept in the dining room. I had my bed, a side table, and a poorly constructed curtain that provided less privacy than a hospital gown. My roommates stayed up until three, four in the morning, ending their nights by watching comedies or action movies, meaning I went to sleep with the sounds of belly laughter or explosions ringing in my head.
However, in the 16 years since I first started school in Worthington, I've come to a realization: I'd love for my (for now theoretical) child to go to community college. The price is the most obvious reason. At a time when private schools and state universities continue to raise tuition to the point where parents have to offer to sell their second-born to allow their firstborn to go to college, the low, low costs of community colleges welcome you with open arms.
It's easy to transfer to a four-year school. Kids do miss out on freshman hazing. They have to make a new group of friends when they transfer. They have to attend orientation as a 20-year-old surrounded by wide-eyed 18-year-olds. They have to listen to clichéd jokes about community colleges. There are worse things in the world, like being the poster child for documentaries about college students weighed down and destroyed by debt. So why not take advantage of the financial breaks?
But community colleges don't have to just be treated like a cheap prison sentence ("I'm doing a two-year stint up at Bronx Community College. I hope to get paroled in a year.") Students actually...learn quite a lot at community colleges. Smart, passionate professors teach there. The best journalism teacher I had taught at Worthington, a former newspaper editor who had superb insight into the business and was extremely encouraging with my writing from the first class I had with him. True, the rest of the class was filled with kids who would hold a newspaper upside down if told to read it - "the words don't make sense" - but as I learned at St. John's, every class in every school has swell students who make their peers go, huh? Another English professor inspired me with his life story, and his writing.
And you can make friends for life at community colleges, just as easily as you can at a fraternity or sorority and there isn't even any paddling. The four guys I lived with in the four-bedroom-and-one-dining-room home were all great guys. One became a longtime friend.
Attending WCC gave me the chance to play college basketball for two years. My old coach, Mike Augustine, remains a valued friend. He's also an example of what community colleges can do for people. At the same time he was coaching us, he was a fellow student, a middle-aged guy who returned to school to get his teaching degree. He earned his associate's, and went on to a four-year school, followed by a successful career as a teacher. Augie was a nontraditional student who experienced a traditional benefit of two-year schools: his life improved.
A few months into my freshman year at WCC, I wanted to transfer to St. John's. My parents explained that it wasn't financially viable at the time. For a few weeks I was upset. But as I settled in and became comfortable, I grew to love my time at WCC. Sixteen years later, I'm even more grateful I spent my first two years there. My student loans were half of what they would have been. The lessons I learned in my classes remain with me. I extended my basketball career. I made friends for life.
Community college advocates shouldn't fear "Community," unless Chevy Chase's performance mirrors his effort on his talk show. Any publicity helps, and community colleges are havens for odd people and strange situations - a sitcom really should have been set in one long ago. They just happen to also be the perfect schools for hundreds of thousands of students, of all ages.