I 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. 

Entering 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.

6.5 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 didn’t 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 didn’t fully realize, and I was constantly shadowed by the thoughts, “Why am I here?” and “I don’t belong here.”  I was blind to the different roads that students could travel.  I guess I didn’t know how to ask questions, because I didn’t 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.

What 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.

Somehow, 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.

Somehow, 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.

Through 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 faculty.

While 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.

It 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. 

I 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.

Together, 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 posters.   

What 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.

Teaching 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:

  • I recall a student of mine called Juan.  He finally realized that he had to disassociate himself from some of his friends who interfered with his college studies and who encouraged him to get into trouble with the law.
  • I recall Nancy, who was a mother of three small children.  She was in a situation where her significant other was physically abusive, an unemployed alcoholic who created disharmony at home. Nancy finally realized through the wise choices discussions that she was not to blame for her boyfriend’s happiness.  She eventually took control of her life, and created a better home life environment for her children, and changed jobs in order to become a full-time student.
  • I also recall Ralph who realized that he was in a dead-end job and had wasted years going no where; he decided to quit his job and go to school full-time.

I’m 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.

Yes, 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

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