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Community College Is Where It Began

by Linda Rivera - February 16, 2022

This commentary centers around a personal story of dreams coming true for an immigrant Latino woman who obtained a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering, and the community college that made it all possible.

Referred to as the peoples colleges in the literature, U.S. community colleges provide an open venue for all to partake in educational opportunities, which is unmatched in the world.  For this week, we highlight three commentaries all of which are powerful narratives that reveal just how important community colleges can be in altering ones life chances, especially for those who are first in their families to attend college. Each of the commentaries this week are autobiographical essays from individuals whose experiences in community college opened doors that were previously unimaginable.   The first is by a student who entered Norwalk Community College in Connecticut without proficiency in English and continued her higher education eventually obtaining a Ph.D. at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), ultimately finding rewarding employment in a multinational corporation. The second piece was written by a student who started at Community College of Philadelphia, received a baccalaureate and masters degree in social work from Bryn Mar College, and is now working as a mental health therapist in the very first community she lived in, as well as teaching developmental math part-time at Bryn Mar College. The final piece was written by a faculty member and co-chair of Social Sciences at Greenfield Community College in Massachusetts, who as a first-generation, community college student found his way, and developed a sense of belonging in higher ed, that paved the way to pursuing a PhD in Sociology, and returning to teach at the community college.

- Robin G. Isserles and David Levinson

In a world that grows polarized as we simultaneously become more connected via the Internet and social media, this commentary is aimed to be an uplifting story amid the rubble of our current discourse. It is the story of dreams coming true and of the community that made it all possible. Most important, it highlights the importance of community colleges and how they play a critical role in many students lives, especially as higher education becomes an unattainable commodity with an ever-growing price tag while wages remain stagnant.

My aspirations as a teenage Latina woman coming to the U.S. were not unlike those of the many who immigrate to this country from all over the world, with big dreams of accomplishment and an improved way of life. The journey of becoming a PhD in electrical engineering was a roller-coaster ride. I doubted myself many times over, to the point of nearly quitting; however, the incredible support system I had with me along the waymy family, teachers, advisors, and mentorsgot me through it all. It was the community that gave me a little push every time I needed it. I believe this is what any young student with ambition for higher education needs: a community that reinforces the idea in them that they are capable, that there are avenues, and that although the path may seem treacherous sometimes, we together can help clear the way.

I am originally from Bogotá, Colombia. As is predominantly the case for immigrant families, my parents, brother, and I came to the U.S. seeking better opportunities. Coming to America was my childhood dream. The mere idea of traveling to such a diverse land, where there are seemingly no boundaries to what one could achieve, gave me goosebumps and filled me with enthusiasm. As I arrived freshly out of high school, the pursuit of a higher education was my primary goal, but how I would get there was a complete unknown. Everything was new to us, which was both exciting and daunting.

Our journey began in one single roomthe four of usin a two-bedroom apartment that we shared with another family. I remember taking the challenges we faced daily in stride because the excitement of being here overpowered any other feeling. English as a second language was the first of many obstacles to overcome. Back in Colombia, I used to watch The Mickey Mouse Club; through comedy sketches, choreographies, and songs, along with closed captions, I taught myself a lot of the language and its pronunciation, which became an asset. This knowledge landed me my first job ever, as a waitress. A first opportunity coming true is how my story was set in motion. Through this experience, I learned the value of constantly drawing lessons from any situation I found myself in, of being resourceful, and of persevering at every turn.

Resourcefulness is what got me to Norwalk Community College (NCC) in Connecticut. This became my anchor for higher education. Since high school, I liked math and solving puzzles, so early on, I knew that my chosen career would involve problem-solving. Societal pressures and assumptions about the type of career women should pursue did give me pause, but they were not ultimately a deterrent because my goals and determination to go after them were simply stronger. I silenced what some of the external voices were telling me, continually ignored preconceptions about who I was because of where I was born and what I looked like, and just took the leap to a career in STEM. As I worked full time to pay my way through the two-year associates degree, I was fortunate to always have the support of my family. At NCC, this support system grew. Professors, tutors, administrators, and countless others gave me the tools and conviction that I needed to continue striving for my higher education dreams. Not once did I perceive that they lacked confidence in me. Even though I doubted myself when challenges seemed too great to overcome, my fears were not reinforced by the community I started building around me. Being encouraged when you feel vulnerable is invaluable, and I consider it a very powerful contributing factor to realizing my goals.

Transferring to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) to complete a bachelors degree in electrical engineering was but a distant dream because of the high cost of a private institution. Guidance by my mentors, along with NCCs well-established pathway for transferring credits to RPI, coupled with my good grades, allowed me to receive scholarships and other funding that made it all possible. Once at RPI, working full time was out of the question. The course load was too demanding, and I knew that school would require 100% of my attention. I embarked on this new adventure with the little savings I had in my pocket, along with a laser-focused mindset to succeed. When I achieved what I thought was the ultimate milestone of a bachelor of science degree, I was encouraged by the RPI community to go further.

I was faced with a tough decision, because by then, I had gotten married. The prospect of graduating and starting a life out of school with my husband was exciting, but after wrestling with the decision, we settled on furthering our education. I stayed at RPI, eventually for longer than originally planned, since I went on to pursue a doctorate degree. It was 2008 when I completed the work toward the masters. We were feeling the impact of the economic downturn; this made it difficult to turn down the opportunity to stay in school, with an offer on the table that included full funding. Graduate school has been one of the toughest challenges I have faced, because of both the academic demands of solving new problems or improving on existing solutions, and the difficulties of balancing my personal life. Earning a PhD in electrical engineering in 2013 came with relief, gratitude, and validation for what I am capable of.

After graduating, industry is where I turned. Although academia is a natural path for PhD graduates, I was eager to gain new experience advancing the collective goals of a company. A career fair at RPI led me to Pratt & Whitney, a business unit under aerospace conglomerate Raytheon Technologies. P&W is also one of few jet engine manufacturers in the world. After a series of intense interviews, I was offered a position as one of few women in the field. My career has progressed at Raytheon, where I have held different positions, going from an individual contributor to managing teams. Most recently, I made a transition to a group that aims to accelerate a digital transformation that the company desperately needs, as the digital era continues to rapidly evolve.

Throughout my odyssey, I have realized that learning is a lifelong process. It does not stop, even after achieving the highest level of formal education. I continue discovering my potential in areas I never imagined excelling infrom managing people, to providing insight into the future vision of key emerging technologies, to mentoring students, to pondering and finding ways of shaping my legacy in ways that promote the same sense of community that has served as a strong foundation to my life. I have also reflected on how all my accomplishments, big and small, came to be. Besides the contribution of a strong support system, they are all rooted in a principle that I have followed since my story began with my first job as a waitress. The idea is this: When youre presented with a new opportunity that seems daunting, the impostor syndrome takes over, and the fear of failure starts steering you away from it, breathe deeply and take the leap. This is how I personally believe that anyone can reach new heights and avoid plateauing: by taking on tasks that are not within our comfort zone. This way, growth becomes inevitable. My endeavors are constantly guided by this principle.

To all the vibrant, young, underrepresented students who are interested in or curious about pursuing a career in STEM, my sincere advice is that you take a leap and give yourselves a chance. It is an opportunity not only to achieve individual goals, but also to contribute to closing the gender and ethnicity gap, as well as to continue building a community of strong, dedicated professionals who serve as the foundation for future generations.

Achieving a successful career requires individual discipline and dedication, and the people who come along the way to provide support one way or another are the catalysts that enable the possibilities. That is why I believe institutions like community collegestheir programs working with four-year universities, scholarships, sponsorships, and the resources that provide guidance to students when they first walk in the doorare so critical to retention and subsequent graduation. As a success story benefiting from all of the above, I am now on the quest to become a part of the support system for underrepresented students, carrying them forward in their own education journeys, with the hope that they culminate in fulfilling careers and a stronger sense of community.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: February 16, 2022
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23987, Date Accessed: 2/25/2022 10:02:41 AM

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About the Author
  • Linda Rivera
    Enterprise Digital Accelerator (EDX), Raytheon Technologies
    E-mail Author
    LINDA RIVERA, Ph.D., is Senior Technical Project Manager (TPM) at Enterprise Digital Accelerator (EDX), Raytheon Technologies (RTX) where she manages efforts to advance digital transformation within Raytheon businesses by forging strong relationships between the EDX and the business units, while ensuring technical blockers are addressed efficiently. She holds a Ph. D. in electrical engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI).
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