first attended Cerritos College in 1965. Like many of my own college
students today, I was underprepared, came from a low-income family, lived in a
barrio called Hawaiian Gardens, and was a first-generation college student.
college, I felt a sense of isolation from other students. As I recall,
there were only about 100 of us Latinos on campus. The campus was
basically all white. I can remember attending my classes, sitting on hard
wooden chairs, and being lectured to. In most cases, I felt a distance and
disconnect from the teacher and the course content. I did my best to take notes
and struggled to understand the textbooks as I read them in the library. I
studied alone. I didn't enjoy going to school, but I knew that college
would change my life and give me new opportunities.
miles. That was the distance between where I lived in Hawaiian Gardens and
Cerritos College. But those 6.5 miles may as well have been the distance
to the moon. There was little similarity between home life and college
life. At home, there were no books to speak of and I didnít have to
discipline myself to anything. On the other hand, when I first stood on
the Cerritos College campus, I was overwhelmed with the enormous concrete
buildings that stood as citadels for knowledge and the demands of college life.
As a college student, I was being measured by abstractions that I didnít fully
realize, and I was constantly shadowed by the thoughts, ďWhy am I here?Ē and
ďI donít belong here.Ē I was blind to the different roads that
students could travel. I guess I didnít know how to ask questions,
because I didnít know what questions to ask. Sometimes I would look for
answers by standing in hallways or in the library, to see how other students
looked and behaved, and so, slowly, almost in steps too small to notice, I
started my journey.
made college palatable was the fact that I had many years of experience working
in agricultural fields with my family. I used to pick tomatoes, string
beans, and cotton, but my most extensive experience was working in Selma,
California, picking grapes for five cents a tray. By the time I was a
senior at Artesia High School, I didn't know what I wanted to do in life, but I
knew that I didn't want to be a grape picker all of my life. I'd seen the
pain on the bodies of my uncles and aunts who lived lives as agricultural
workers, old before their time, poor, and mostly unhappy with their lives.
I navigated my way through college, but it seemed always to be a struggle.
I often doubted myself as a college student and didn't get much encouragement
from my teachers. As an English major, I took the usual courses that included
William Shakespeare, Geoffrey Chaucer, Mark Twain, Russian literature, world
literature, and composition classes. I guess I should never have been
surprised that throughout my bachelor's and master's degrees I was always the
only Latino in class. Years later I would realize that educational
researcher Vincent Tinto was talking about students like me, those who struggle
with the college experience, isolated and incongruent to the college mainstream
of college life in either academic or social settings.
I graduated from college and started to work at Cerritos College in 1972 in the
EOPS Program. The program's mission of providing "above and
beyond" services and programs to low-income, underprepared, and first-year
college students seemed to be my calling. I could certainly connect with
the students we served.
the EOPS program, we developed many student services--recruitment, tutoring,
counseling, provided grants and workshops, and registration assistance. I
assumed that we had hit our high water mark. However, it was not until I
completed my doctoral dissertation from the University of Southern California (USC)
that I realized that the program needed a paradigm shift to move student
services into greater collaboration with classroom faculty. So we started
to develop and implement supplemental instruction and learning communities with
we were developing and implementing these instructional linkages through EOPS,
we brought to the college national speakers on student retention: Vincent Tinto
(social and academic integration); Laura Rendon (student validation); and John
Gardner (First Year Experience). Yes, EOPS was a player, along with many
other groups and individuals on campus, in trying to change the college ethos,
to make a shift from a focus on teaching to a focus on learning, and to value
and to appreciate the experiences that students bring to the classroom.
Needless to say, this is still a work in progress.
was not until I attended an On Course Workshop in 1996, that I realized what was
needed, a "glue" to build a "common ground" across
disciplines. On Course was that glue. Over the intervening years, nearly 200
Cerritos faculty and staff members have attended six separate On Course
trainings sponsored by the college. Looking back at my own academic career, I
wish I had had the tools presented by On Course. Maybe this is why I can
identify with the students entering Cerritos College.
am now part of an EOPS learning community that includes my English composition
class and a counseling and guidance class. The counselor and I use the
same room and we are both in the classroom together. The counselor uses On
Course as a textbook in the guidance class, and I get involved because each
chapter includes a writing activity.
we use the On Course text to empower students to better define themselves, to
re-examine their values and behavior, their life choices, and explore how to
become a better student. We have the students form "familias"
(groups). We assign the class to read a chapter, but we also assign a
"familia" to give a presentation on the unit. Often the students
do skits, use music, make videos, or give a group presentation that includes
the EOPS counselor and I try to do in our learning community is to foster
intrinsic motivation by creating a learning environment, unlike the classroom
environment that I experienced in 1965, where students are in a classroom
setting that includes a safe harbor of inclusion, connection with their peers
and faculty, a spirit of tolerance, encouragement, and a sense of ownership
through the use of student voices in and outside of the classroom.
is never easy, but with On Course, I have a new set of tools (resources) to
empower my students to succeed in college and in life. Here are just a few of
our On Course experiences:
always amazed at how students do create their own intrinsic motivation through
On Course assignments. Not all students have earth-shaking experiences,
but most do make changes in their lives, even if those changes are subtle.
I am a strong believer that students come into our classrooms with not only
academic concerns, but also other life experiences or issues that do, often,
hamper or interfere with their college life. Through the On Course exercises,
students are able to find their "voices."
As the diversity of our community college students continues to increase, we are faced with more students who are underprepared, come from low-income backgrounds, and are first generation college students. Our colleges need to empower our students to take more responsibility for their college career and to make wiser choices as they deal with their life experiences.
--Phil Rodriguez, Faculty, English & Director of Student Affairs, Cerritos College (CA) PRODRIGUEZ@Cerritos.edu
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