When I was 18 years old, community college saved my life. It was the mid-1990s, and I was a ballet dancer -- or had been, until a series of injuries, exacerbated by an eating disorder, made it clear that to continue dancing would mean years of struggle and pain.
So I quit. But quitting didn't end my problems. I still had bum ankles, and a damaged sense of self. Having for years devoted almost every conscious hour outside school to training and performing, I found myself rootless, grieving and dangerously depressed.
Then in the mail one day, a catalog: City College of San Francisco, it said. Its pages were filled with information on something called "matriculation" and mysterious capital letters in teeny-tiny print: ANTH, ASAM, ECON, IDST. I read that catalog with curiosity -- and then, for the first time in months, with hope.
I would eventually learn that hope is fundamental to community college's purpose. On campus -- on the southern edge of the city, on a site often shrouded in bone-chilling fog -- I sat alongside students of diverse origin and motive, young, old, ambitious, ambivalent, razor-focused, confused. Few of us had much money. All of us were searching.
Before the covid-19 pandemic, nearly 5.4 million students were enrolled in such public two-year colleges, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. By last fall, that number had dropped by 10% -- a troubling decline in a nation that relies on these colleges as a training ground for workers in a range of essential trades, without which America could not function: health care, information technology, mechanical engineering, firefighting, early childhood education.
This is one reason to cheer President Joe Biden's $1.8 trillion American Families Plan -- which proposes, among other initiatives, to pay for two years of community college. This "down payment on the future of America," as the administration describes it, will no doubt be crucial to driving enrollments at community colleges as the country reopens and rebuilds.
First lady Jill Biden, herself a longtime community college professor, has said these institutions are "our most powerful engine of prosperity." They're also a significant force in the movement for economic, racial and social equity. They frequently serve immigrants, communities of color and low-income students, putting higher education -- and thus the opportunity to rise -- within reach for those who might otherwise be forced to choose between taking that biotech class or putting food on the table.
My community college experience wasn't free, but it felt close -- $13 a credit, manageable on barista pay (my first post-ballet job). It was also a safe, stable haven, just as it is for many students who might otherwise drift endlessly. People who had terrible high-school grades and are trying to get back on track. Who can't afford tuition at four-year institutions. Who need the counseling, career guidance and additional support services the colleges offer to homeless and other at-risk students, to veterans, to foster youths. Or who simply seek the structure and inspiration an educational environment can provide.
I bounced from psychology to gender studies, philosophy to astronomy. I fretted about being objectless, but a counselor said take your time, it'll fall into place. And soon, sure enough, two things happened that changed the course of my life.
One: In an English class, my professor inserted a hyphen into a word in an essay I'd written, in red pen. When I asked why, she said, "Because it's correct. Hyphens are as integral to clear writing as anything else." A hyphen mattered that much? Maybe I wanted to be like her when I grew up.
Two: I enrolled in a newswriting course, thinking it would teach me basic interviewing skills, important to my career as ... maybe ... a cultural anthropologist? Thanks to that class, I picked up the student newspaper -- strong, though I noticed quite a few errors that would have given my English professor a stroke. Armed with my newfound hyphen skills, I took the paper to my journalism professor and asked, "Could you use some help?"
I ended up as a volunteer proofreader on that paper. In subsequent semesters I joined the staff, learned to copy-edit and compose headlines. In short: I was on my way to acquiring a trade -- one the Founders, in conceiving our nation's democracy, had happened to deem essential.
I rode that trade to a summer internship, to starter jobs in small newsrooms, to bigger jobs in bigger newsrooms -- all without having earned even an associate's degree. Community college set me on that path. It also, thanks to a ballroom class populated by impressively nimble senior citizens, got me back into dancing. It gave me community -- and gave me back myself.
Jen Balderama writes for The Washington Post.