To navigate a higher education system plagued by shortage and increasing demand, many students often take extraordinary steps to complete the 60 units required to transfer to four-year colleges or universities.
Connie Castelan, 19, is a prime example of such a student. Connie is the first person in her family to earn a high school diploma. She grew up in a predominately Latino neighborhood in East Los Angeles. Her parents migrated from Mexico City to Los Angeles in 1986 and work in the local restaurant industry as a waiter and waitress.
And so on their modest salaries, they sent Connie and her younger brother, Salvador, to the local Catholic schools from elementary to high school.
For Connie’s tuition for high school, the Castelans were required to pay $400 each month. Every day after work, Mrs. Castelan put $1, $5, or—on good days —$10 into a jar, her tip money. The jar’s contents went to Connie’s high school tuition, and by the end of each month Mrs. Castelan had saved over $300 and had only the small remainder to pay.
Mrs. Castelan has always been her daughter’s strongest advocate and motivator. Connie recalls a powerful incident when she was a junior in high school. Mrs. Castelan had returned home at 1:00 am following a long and frenetic shift at La Parrilla restaurant. Connie noticed that her mom’s eyes were red and puffy. “What is wrong?” Connie asked. Removing her jacket, Mrs. Castelan revealed a serious burn running the length of her forearm, from her hand to her elbow. She had burned herself on the grill, a workplace accident. As Connie applied salves to the burn, she recalls her mom crying, “I don’t want this life for you. I don’t want you to suffer. I want you to go on and be better.” Mrs. Castelan worked hard to ensure Connie’s education and that her daughter’s life would not be one of toil. “To this day recalling that incident, it makes me emotional,” Connie says.
Graduating with top honors in 2009 from Sacred Heart High School, in the Lincoln Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles, Connie was accepted to a number of top universities including the University of California, Los Angeles; the University of Southern California; and the University of California, Berkeley. A Catholic school—the University of Notre Dame in Indiana—was Connie’s first choice. Notre Dame offered a small amount of financial aid, but Connie needed to come up with an additional $30,000 a year. When it became clear that she and her parents would be unable to make up the difference, Connie decided to fulfill her lower division requirements at a California community college, where the fees—$26 per unit—were affordable, and she would transfer to Notre Dame in two years.
Connie first experienced the fierce competition for classes at community college the summer after high school when she tried to enroll in a chemistry class. At Pasadena City College and East Los Angeles Community College, the class was filled, but she made it on to the lengthy waitlists. Enrollment was determined by randomness and chance: the professors at both colleges raffled off the open seats. “I didn’t get in because my name wasn’t drawn from a hat,” said Connie. And the problem of course shortages would only grow more complex for her.
Connie describes the first half of 2010 as the, “Horrible Spring. I was going to different colleges—even on the same day—just so I could get the classes I needed, and I was working a full-time job,” she said.
The elusive chemistry course finally materialized at Southwest Community College, a campus near the Westchester YMCA in South Los Angeles where Connie worked full-time as Executive Assistant to the Director. At the same time, she took an English course at East Los Angeles Community College. Connie’s days began at 4:00 am and lasted nearly until midnight. Commuting close to 80 miles, she spent two hours each day on the road. The unrelenting pace was taxing, and it began to take a toll on her well-being.
At the time, Connie was only 18 years old. She lost weight because she could not make time for meals. She developed an anxiety disorder that to this day causes her to shake uncontrollably if under extreme pressure. “I was stressed out to the max,” she says. Eventually, Connie reduced her work hours to 20 per week, and the pace of her life normalized. But the effects of class shortages persist, and Connie continues to take classes at multiple colleges simultaneously to compensate for this shortfall. According to Connie, she averages three colleges a semester.
Eighty percent of community college students work, and matters such as the timely posting of the schedule of classes impact working students. In a recent semester at Glendale Community College, the schedule of classes was posted no more than two weeks before the start of registration. This late posting gave Connie virtually no time to coordinate her work and school schedules nor to request scheduling changes of her employer. “If you’re going to take time off from work,” Connie says, one must consider “if you’re going to have enough money for the month, for the bills.” The late posting leaves her and many other students scrambling to make last-minute calculations about finances. “You have to be very organized to have that planned out and with them not posting schedules, not posting times of classes, it puts a dent in your schedule, in your system.”
In order for students like Connie striving to achieve their goals of higher education and eager to use the California Community Colleges system, they must endure great hardships. Referring to the “Horrible Spring,” Connie knows “for a fact that experience is going to be with me for the rest of my life. I will be telling my children the story of how I basically was killing myself to go to school. It’s not a pleasant one, but it’s one I had to go through to complete my education.”
In the fall of 2011, Connie was taking five classes at three community colleges, and working two part-time jobs.
In the two years since she graduated from high school, she has been enrolled at a total of seven community colleges. She transferred to Seattle Pacific University in Washington in the winter of 2012 where she plans to work toward a double major in English and political science and ultimately pursue a career in law.
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*Moore, C., Shulock, N. (2010). Divided We Fail: Improving Completion and Closing Racial Gaps in California’s Community Colleges. Institute for Higher Education Leadership & Policy, CSU Sacramento