This past year has been difficult for Ventura County’s high school and college students, who have missed key rites of passage, including proms and graduations. Many have seen their dreams crumble, while others have lost their momentum.
Throughout America, community colleges have seen a decline in enrollments as students face losing loved ones to COVID, unemployment, the absence of social outlets and the loss of campus-based academic opportunities.
Generally speaking, the CSU and UC systems have not experienced this same decline in enrollments. Why is that?
Community colleges are proud “open access” institutions. If you’re looking for another chance at life, you can find that opportunity on our campuses. Although we have many students who have excelled academically, for other students who have struggled in the classroom or faced financial hardship, community college serves as a lifeline to a better life.
That means we tend to serve the communities hardest hit by things like recessions and pandemics. It also means community colleges are among society’s most powerful engines of economic mobility and are bulwarks for an equitable and democratic society. Our graduates go on to take life by the reins, often outperforming their non-transfer peers at UC and CSU campuses once they arrive. After all, it takes grit to overcome adversity and chart a better life.
That’s why the class of 2021, with the unprecedented challenges they’ve faced, will likely produce some of the most resilient role models we have seen in decades. Let me introduce you to three Oxnard College students who demonstrate what I mean.
I met Lorena Ortiz, Chris Hernandez and Gerald Richardson through Oxnard College’s President’s Leadership Forum. In this forum, I introduce students to great leaders of all stripes and examine which qualities might enhance students’ own leadership journeys; often we discover they’re already well along that path.
Lorena Ortiz serves as Oxnard College’s student government president, advocating for her peers and creating a welcoming campus. She’s about to transfer from Oxnard College with four degrees and several honors courses under her belt. But this isn’t Lorena’s first time attending Oxnard College and not too long ago these achievements seemed out of reach.
After grappling with drug addiction and experiencing domestic violence, Lorena lost custody of her children and found herself in a rehab program where she resolved to not be defined by her past. After pulling her life back together, Lorena found a devoted partner, proudly parented her beautiful children and returned to our campus where she worked with offices supporting disadvantaged students. She plans to pay it forward by teaching and working as a counselor with women and children.
There’s also Chris Hernandez. After moving to the United States from Mexico, Chris’ mother enrolled at Oxnard College and transferred to Cal State Northridge. As his family faced discrimination, Chris resolved to build a life of service to others. And like his mother, he attended Oxnard College to set an example for his own children. Chris is already a budding leader here in Oxnard where he helps lead his neighborhood council and partners with city departments, local police and community organizations to uplift young people and strengthen our community.
Then there’s Gerald Richardson, who experienced homelessness after overcoming the school-to-prison pipeline. Gerald soon began providing for his family by stocking shelves. He experienced racism along the way and became impassioned about turning bigoted perceptions of Black men, as well as his own adverse experiences, into positive change for his community.
Gerald interned with a local police department where he helped provide equitable access to city services. Today, he’s involved in everything from student government to peer mentorship and honors programs. With an eye on working in law and public policy, Gerald holds the same commitment as Lorena and Chris do for serving the community they love.
I am immensely proud of Lorena, Chris, Gerald and all the students in the President’s Leadership Forum. When I worry about the future, they give me hope. While it is too soon to tell where their trajectories will take them, I am certain they will positively impact our society and will serve as role models for many others who have watched them struggle in this difficult past year, heads held high, unbowed and unbroken.
We can all take a lesson.
Luis P. Sanchez, JD, LLM, is the president of Oxnard College.