Twenty-two-year-old Victoria Conlu grew up in a multi-generational Filipino household with her mom, siblings, aunts, uncles and grandparents in the San Francisco Bay area. Victoria’s education was a family affair, and all the adults in the household contributed financially to her primary and secondary education. She explains that they never owned their own home, instead they rented because the family, “always invested a lot of money into sending me to private school.” For Victoria, going to college was a foregone conclusion.
A top student at Deer Valley High School, Victoria ranked number 13 out of 700 students. From high school, she was accepted to the University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill, and to Mills College, a school for women in Oakland, California. After deciding to switch focus from journalism to nursing, Victoria decided to enroll at City College of San Francisco (CCSF). It was affordable, and she knew several students who had gone through the nursing program and had positive experiences.
The first week of class brought many unexpected challenges.
“There were people desperate to get classes,” Victoria says. She paints the scene: “Students packed every inch of free classroom space just hoping for a chance to add the course. Some brought folding chairs, others sat on the floor. Everybody just got really upset. There would be people standing outside of class who would start scenes with professors, like ‘I really need this class! You don’t understand!’ It was really a hostile environment trying to get into classes.”
Victoria says. “When I first started college I wasn’t as assertive as some of the other students, and I wouldn’t demand that I deserved to be in the class. I’d kind of hang back and not get a spot. I just didn’t have as much of a backbone yet, so I couldn’t demand that I be able to
stay in the class, which is what I ended up having to do.”
One semester, it was essential for Victoria to get a seat in an Introduction to Medical Chemistry course. The course was a pre-requisite for subsequent chemistry courses, and since she was unable to enroll in the course the previous semester, she risked delaying her transfer.
Her persistence paid off, and the professor added her to the class.
“I think the way the registration system works at CCSF is that there are a certain number of students who can enroll. Then, the online registration gets shut down, and no other people can enroll. The teachers can give out these special permit codes to a certain number of people,” she says. The special permit codes allow teachers, at their discretion, to add students beyond the online enrollment limit. Victoria found that some professors were indifferent to student demand. “I had this one professor who said, ‘I don’t want to give out all my permit codes because it’s easier to manage smaller classes.’ ”
Many times, courses are offered at inconvenient times, or they overlapped with one another. “Let’s say I needed to take an English class, a math class and a science class. They would all overlap each other. You’d have to pick one, and then you’d have to wait until the next semester to take the next class. By then, there would be a backlog of people who also needed to take that same class.”
Like many students, Victoria went to great lengths to attend class. At the time, she lived in Brentwood, an East Bay city about 60 miles from San Francisco. She did not have a car, and her daily commute on public transportation took nearly four hours each way. She rode a bus to the Pittsburg stop on the BART subway line that took her to the campus. “I’d have to leave about 5 a.m. to get to a 9 o’clock class,” she says. “I was always bringing my homework on the train and doing it to and from school, and eating breakfast at school while walking between classes.”
“Many times people won’t tell you what resources are available and you have to snoop around for yourself just to see what’s there and what’s useful to you,” Victoria says. Among the resources she discovered and found useful were the free or low cost health services and the class planning services. The class planning service generates a semester-by-semester class schedule that helps students stay on track and keep abreast of requirements. “That’s what trips people up. They’ll take a class, and then realize they took the wrong class. They won’t know exactly what’s required. It helps to talk to people who can help you stay on track.” Class planning can be done by counselors or by peer-to-peer mentors.
When Victoria worked as a peer-to-peer counselor, she noticed that few students took advantage of the services offered. “So few people came to our offices.” The main channel for information distribution was the posting of fliers on bulletin boards. “I think the schools should take up more of the burden of making sure people know about these kinds of things,” she says. The school’s website does not post extensive information on student resources.
Another issue Victoria stresses is a fragmented student body: “Students don’t feel a sense of connection to each other.” Increased competition among students for a shrinking pool of resources drives wedges in the student body. “I think the circumstances are such that everybody has to compete with each other and that makes people more prone to make divisions,” she says. “The competition builds hostility between ethnic groups, well-to-do students, and those who need more aid, and that makes for a hostile learning environment.”
Victoria then enrolled at San Francisco State University (SFSU) and applied to several nursing programs at CSU San Bernardino, Sacramento State University, and San Jose State University. In all, she spent four semesters at CCSF before transferring on time and on track. After two semesters at SFSU, she returned to CCSF to take two courses she could not get at the university. She says the problem of class shortages is one facing the state’s entire public higher education system.