Letter from Washington

My name is Isa Sheikh, and this summer, I’m serving as the federal policy fellow with the Campaign for College Opportunity in the newly opened Washington, DC office. In other seasons, you can find me on Notre Dame’s campus in Indiana as a reporter and editor, research assistant and a student of history, political science, journalism and Asian studies.

I’m super excited to spend the next few months in our nation’s capital working to advance a federal conversation and agenda to address the transfer policies needed to improve student success.

As I walked past the White House on my first day at work with the Campaign, I absentmindedly stepped into a shockingly deep puddle from the previous day’s thunderstorms, miraculously not soaking my socks. Perhaps it was my first-day-of-school jitters, or the surrealism at being so close to this landmark I’d seen in movies and TV my entire life.

Contributing to my overall excitement was my enthusiasm at working with the Campaign for College Opportunity this summer. Though I just wrapped up my first year of college, I had first heard about the  organization’s work during high school. As a high school freshman in Sacramento public schools, I enrolled at Sacramento City College (SCC) as a dual enrollment student and began taking classes.

Not only did I have the opportunity to study American Sign Language, history, writing, theatre, economics, early childhood education and other subjects at SCC, I got to sit in classrooms alongside the incredibly diverse cross-section of California, including retired librarians and busy parents returning to school, as well as students a few years out of high school. Far too many of these students stalled in their aspirations to transfer.

In high school, I had the great pleasure of serving as Student Board Member for the Sacramento City Unified School District, representing more than 40,000 public school students and their interests amid the pandemic, and many other challenges. There are different, but related, obstacles in systems of higher education across this country, and I’m looking forward to researching and moving the conversation about students who do not receive the degrees that they seek.

Many of those students in Sacramento go through their K-12 education as the victims of a system that does not put their needs first and does not expose many of them to higher education options through counseling, or programs like the “Panther Pipeline” that led me to Sacramento City College.

There’s something magical about access to public higher education, and a clear pathway to a timely degree. As many of the Campaign’s reports indicate, there is still work ahead to achieve that fully. I saw this personally when my mother enrolled at Cosumnes River College (CRC) with the intentions of finally achieving her degree having left San Francisco State decades prior due to a family situation. Navigating the mess of collating credits from previous courses taken over the years at City College of San Francisco, she began to hit her stride at CRC, even winning a scholarship award.

My parents both immigrated to this country from India and worked incredibly hard throughout my entire childhood. It was always understood that education was our ladder up. Long nights when my dad was out driving taxis to put food on our table came with the implicit contract that our own futures would look different thanks to the attainment of a degree. My mom took me to campuses near us like Berkeley and Stanford so that I could see the opportunities I would one day pursue.

By the time my senior year rolled around, I was determined that I would complete an associate’s degree for transfer (completing my general education with the IGETC breadth), and apply for transfer to a University of California school. When graduation rolled around, I was only a few courses away from receiving that degree but fate had an alternative plan for me and I ended up leaving for Notre Dame. I would learn so many in my classes at Sacramento City College did not advance to the 4-year degree program that they entered college seeking, and within the few who did, most did not advance in two years.

The lessons I learned in my years at Sacramento City College stuck with me, even if I didn’t graduate there. My very first class, a one-unit Human/Career Development class called “Orientation to College” taught me critical information about the programs and systems in place in California. It showed me how to study the unit requirements for transfer, the differences between the CSU and UC systems, goal-setting and how to interact with key documents like the course catalog and different transfer paths. That class truly prepared me for college.

Unfortunately, that information is something most California community college students, and certainly most community college students across the country do not often receive. That’s just one of many obstacles in the transfer maze, and I’m excited to work on developing the conversation about how to fix these barriers on the federal level.

I later would find the entire framework I navigated as I sought an associate’s degree for transfer was created by Governor Schwarzenegger’s 2010 approval of SB 1440 (Padilla), a policy that made the path to transfer far clearer for hundreds of thousands of students like me. That work, co-sponsored by the Campaign, is an inspiration today as we look to making the transfer process easier for students nationwide.

This summer, upon finishing my first year of college, I’ve had the chance to think about the many opportunities and challenges that have defined my journey. My path to higher education was both inevitable and an anomaly and there are so many fortunate incidents that allowed me to receive the information and guidance I needed. Students across this country seeking a degree from the transfer process can’t afford to rely on luck to cut through the cacophony of conflicting and muddy bureaucratic waters so many institutions still offer.

Here’s to national transfer reform, surviving DC weather and (mostly) dry socks. Here’s to the classmates in my early morning Sac City classes who had the audacity to dream of a degree. Here’s to the promise of accessible education and economic mobility my parents saw in this country. That’s why I do what I do.