Gustavo Arellano: This one goes out to all the community college grads

Author, editor and POCHO amigo Gustavo Arellano delivered this commencement speech yesterday to the graduates of Long Beach Community College:

Gustavo Arellano

Gracias for having me here, Vikings. I come from that evil land over yonder on the other side of the 405 — Orange County. Por favor don’t hold it against me, as I come to ustedes in peace and with a message about our shared background as products of California’s magnificent community college system.

I graduated in 1999 from Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, just down the 405. My experience there was similar in many respects to yours. I had a full course load, took intersession, took as many summer school courses as possible, and did all of this while working full time, no financial aid, and helping to support my family. The classes were crowded, the parking horrific, the professors ranging from Einsteins to idiots.

Of course, there is one crucial difference between our respective eras. When I transferred to Chapman University in Orange for my bachelor’s degree, and later on to UCLA for my master’s, the U.S. and California had a healthy economy. I don’t have to remind ustedes about the tough times we face, not just in the quote unquote real world but in the supposed cocoon of academia, in these times of draconian budget cuts and ever-disappearing courses.

Instead, I want to focus on the most lasting attribute all of you picked up during your time at LBCC: the inherent worth of the community college student.

Society at large laughs at community colleges, but especially the students. We are the forgotten ones, the ones ridiculed for not having the money or grades or supposed drive to immediately enroll in a four-year university out of high school. Once here, we’re derided as part-timers, as forever students stuck in a vortex we’ll never get out of because it’s just not in our station in life to succeed. We are the Land of Nodding Off, of excuses for missed finals, of teens sharing auditoriums with adults that have a foolish notion of going back to school.

But that’s not the community college student body I know.

I know people with various academic backgrounds, and it’s those of us who went through the gauntlet of community college that tend to take on life better prepared than others. It’s community college that has historically accepted anyone regardless your background, a show of social grace much needed in this country. Community college forces people to become scholars, to grow up quickly, and doesn’t look kindly on laggers. You can drop out of a four-year school and survive; if you can’t cut it in a community college, then you’re going to have a hell of a time with life.

Contrary to popular opinion, community college is not easy at all. Yet the community college student rises to the challenge, again and again–look at all of you! I’d love to know your stories, if only to add to the tales I already know of community college success stories. I know the stories of middle-aged mothers who work full time, take care of a family, and take course after course, year after year, to qualify for a professional license–that was my mother. I know the stories of undocumented college students who scraped by with no federal or state financial aid and under the threat of deportation yet excelled and went on to a university–that was my former radio producer Julio Salgado, who continues to proudly call himself a Viking. I know the stories of regular folks, of old, young, white, black, Latino, Asian, native, queer, straight, a mix of some or all of them, who enrolled in community college and emerged a better person.

And I know the story of a perennial underachiever, someone who couldn’t be convinced to give a damn about high school, who was in danger of becoming a statistic like so many of his peers, whose eyes were forever opened to the glories of the studious life by the community college experience: by the generosity of perpetually stressed counselors and teachers who nevertheless made time for clueless students, by peers who had harder paths than him, yet pushed him to bigger and better things.

That underachiever was me. I have never forgotten what the community college system gave me–and nor should you.

So as you prepare to go off to other places–universities, the job market, a well-deserved break–continue to embrace the community college system that forged you. Treat Long Beach City College and its influence as your birthright. When foolish critics rail against her worth, defend her. When the budget axe comes after those that remain, whether professors, staff, or future students, fight back with all your might. Take what you learned here and apply them to your life–the grit and strength and determination and particular genius that it takes to be a community college student. Participate in society. Become community and business and school leaders. Help out your neighbors–all those self-help clichés that happen to be true, that happen to be community college’s ultimate lessons.

Times are tough–but so are you. Go show the world what a community college student is made of. Gracias, and God bless.

Gustavo Arellano’s site is here.