It’s OK, I’ll just go to Mt. SAC

It was stormy night at the end of May and the students of Walnut High School were divided. We were not divided by our hair color, or skin tone, but by our GPA.

Those who had received honor status received bright gold cords that laid against their white or baby blue graduation gowns, and received a speech from our guidance counselors praising them and their hard work. The rest of the students, like me, who were not on honor roll, not only did not receive a special speech, but were given no other recognition besides the basic “congratulations.” To add insult to injury, we were forced to sit at the back of the field and given our diplomas last, as people were already filing out.

My graduation was just the tip of the iceberg. My time at Walnut High School had been filled with competition. The environment was so heavily fueled by a need for recognition that those with higher GPAs were somehow elevated in status. Those with higher GPAs received favoritism from other students, and those who did not were ostracized. The rest of us, the ones below that golden 3.5 GPA, became the butt of the school’s running joke: because we didn’t have “honor status” we were destined for nothing more than Mt. San Antonio Community College.

For us, the phrase, “It’s OK, I’ll just go to Mt. SAC,” became our catch phrase. Any time one of us failed a test, didn’t turn in homework, or received a low score on an essay, saying, “It’s OK, I’ll just go to Mt. SAC,” seemed to relieve the embarrassment of our failures.

The stream of jokes was endless. For whatever reason, students were so hell-bent on making Mt. SAC look like failure. Over time, it became a self-fulfilling prophecy where the students who had been told that they were not good enough found comfort in this self-depreciating joke. I would often hear my friends complain about their grades. “If I don’t pass this class, universities won’t accept me and I’ll be forced to go to Mt. SAC.”

Mt. SAC became such a joke for my classmates that my teachers also began to take part in it too.

Once, while we were discussing SAT scores and acceptance rates in universities, a student asked a teacher about Mt. SAC. I don’t know whether the comment was made to ridicule Mt. SAC or simply made for laughs, but after that comment was made, people began to make jokes about how they’d rather be dead than attend Mt. SAC — a disgrace to anyone perusing a higher education.

For four years, I was surrounded by teachers and students who constantly belittled community colleges. The realization that I would be attending a community college instead of a four-year hit me like a ton of bricks. Throughout my years in high school, I heard only horror stories about Mt. SAC, and I was going to have to fight through hell to be content with my decision about going to a community college.

Yet, even when I thought I was content with my decision, teachers who had witnessed me turn my grades from Cs to As in a matter of eight weeks, and who witnessed my GPA turn from a 2.0 to a 3.5, and who saw my writing consistently improve despite being classified as an English Language Development student, could not.

One teacher who stayed in contact with me since my freshman year asked where I would be going to college. She offered to write a recommendation letter. When I broke the news that I would be going to Mt. SAC, she made me feel like a disappointment.

I was constantly questioned about my decision. At first, I didn’t know how to respond or explain. They wouldn’t understand my situation. I knew what I had to say, but I couldn’t. The constant attacks my fellow students made about community colleges made me feel embarrassed. I was made to feel that I wasn’t as smart as the others.

I had had no clue what “honor status” was until my junior year in high school. It wasn’t until a friend of mine explained that I was never going to achieve “honor status” because my current GPA of 3.0 was too low. And here I had thought that I was just starting to do well.

My parents wanted me to attend a university but they were content with my graduating high school, with or without the honor cord. “Honors” wasn’t something my parents even understood. They were foreign and new to the American education system. When I realized that I would only be able to attend community college after high school, I had to explain to my mother the differences of a four year university versus a community college.

No matter how much money I received from a Pell Grant, my family would never be able to afford to send me to a four-year school. I would have to attend a community college for a few years and then transfer out. This is a major appeal for many students. What my teachers and counselors at Walnut High School had failed to mention is that tuition at a four year university is incredibly expensive.

Yet, community colleges such as Mt. SAC, are often a joke for high schools like mine. After explaining my financial situation, the teacher seemed to understand and never brought up the subject again. About a month later, a student who had graduated the year before came into my class and talked about going to a university and avoiding community colleges. It was the worst moment in my life. I felt like they were taking extra measures to ensure the future class wouldn’t go to a community college. There it was again — a personal attack on my future. I got over it eventually, and finished my assigned work and kept my head high.

Now that I am attending a community college however, I see that everyone was wrong. Mt. SAC might not have fancy dorms or the university title, but everything that had been stuffed in my brain for the past four years was wrong. The professors are professionals who do not make it easier on their students simply because “anyone with a pulse can apply,” but instead demand more of me compared to my friends who are attending a university. My professors have commented on how they want their students to succeed and offer help and programs that can help them achieve their goals and attend a university as fast as possible. So many programs are offered at community colleges, more than the high school outreach program originally disclosed. Yet, the feeling that my high school teachers and my former classmates embedded in me, making me feel like a disappointment for going to community college, can never go away because it’s something that will haunt me. For months, students made me feel like less for attending a community college, they made me doubt my abilities and what I am capable of. Thankfully, I’m a lot happier with my decision than I was about a year ago. No high school student should be made to feel like a disappointment or failure for attending a community college, especially for financial limitations.

Sara Mestas, counselor in the athletics dept. at Mt. SAC, was unable to go to a four-year university and instead attended Mt. SAC until she was ready to transfer, “I wasn’t eligible to go straight to a four year, and I visited Mt. SAC with a friend, and I thought it was beautiful…it looked like a university to me.” Mestas says. Mestas didn’t realizes the differences between a four- year and a community college when in Victor Valley High School, and didn’t fully understand the distinction until she arrived at Mt. SAC. To Mestas, attending a community college was not a rarity, instead most of her friends did not seek a higher education, and those who did were attending a community college.

Mestas attended school, then transferred from Mt. SAC towards Cal State Fullerton after taking a break to begin working and start a family. Mestas describes the transfer process as easy, and says her returning to school, despite taking break, did not affect her ability to transfer when returning.

The source of all the bashing on community colleges stem from the same area: ignorance. Mestas says that those who bash on Mt.SAC don’t understand the importance that Mt.SAC holds to students who cannot attend a four- year at first.