Engagement Is Key to Community College Success, Author Says

In a new book, one graduate details how forming relationships and getting involved is critical.

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Isa Adney was set to go to a "small, idyllic, right-on-the-beach private" college—that is, until the $25,000 bill for her first year arrived. Unwilling to plunge her working-class parents into debt, she enrolled in a local community college in Florida. Waiting 2½ hours to talk to an adviser, she cried. "I felt so alone," she recalls. "I felt so lost." 

Community college turned out to be "a private school education for a public school cost," Adney writes in Community College Success: How to Finish with Friends, Scholarships, Internships, and the Career of Your Dreams, which is aimed at first-generation collegegoers. 

With help from professors, she won a Jack Kent Cooke Foundation scholarship, which gave her $60,000 toward a bachelor's degree and $50,000 toward a master's. Now a student life coordinator at Seminole State College and a blogger, Adney is about to finish an M.Ed. in training and development at the University of Illinois—Urbana-Champaign

[Learn about scholarships for community college students.] 

It didn't come easy. "I had a lot of fear" in the first semester, Adney says. "Professors are incredibly intimidating. They're up there. They know all this stuff." 

Like many commuter students, she went to class and then went home during her first semester. That kind of "drive through" education doesn't work, she says. Loners become quitters. 

The secret to success is people, Adney writes. Talk to classmates. Form study groups. Join clubs—and then take a leadership role. Develop a network of friends. 

"Choose people who challenge you to be better," she writes. "Choose people who want to go far in their lives and who won't let anything get in their way. Choose people who lift you up when you're feeling down and will study with you, encourage you when you get a bad grade, and call you when you're not in class … and have the courage to let go of the friends who don't." 

[Read these tips on finishing community college.] 

Get to know professors, who may turn into mentors, Adney tells students. 

She was terrified when a professor wrote "see me" on a paper he was returning to her. It turned out he wanted to tell her about the honors program. 

Adney's book tells rookie students where to sit and how to behave on the first day of class (e.g., read the syllabus before asking questions) and thereafter. It explains how to use office hours, what to say to professors, and what to do before and after the first project or exam. 

Figure out why you're in college, Adney says. Many students haven't thought about their goals, she notes, so they have no education plan. "If you're wandering aimlessly, that's not going to work." 

First-generation community college students may not understand their instructors' expectations, concludes Rebecca Cox, a Seton Hall University education professor, in The College Fear Factor: How Students and Professors Misunderstand One Another. Students in introductory classes told Cox they feared being exposed "as too stupid for college classes" if they spoke up in class or asked for help. 

"Everyone's scared" at first, Adney says. "It's about the courage to take that first step." 

Many community college students—especially those who are the first in their families to go to college—don't know to read a syllabus, E-mail the instructor, or use office hours, says Melinda Karp, a senior research associate at the Community College Research Center, based at Teachers College, Columbia University

Students do better if they make friends who will share information (Who's the best econ instructor? When are the scholarship interviews? How can I get a tutor?), Karp and colleagues found. "These networks allow students to navigate the campus environment, access knowledge about the college, create a sense of social belonging, and, ultimately, feel that there are people who care about their academic welfare." 

Some community colleges are trying to create a sense of connection and community by grouping new students—particularly those who aren't well-prepared academically—in "learning communities," where students take two or three related courses together with faculty who collaborate on curriculum and assignments.