Photography: Christopher Voelker

A great way to find your path in life is by attending a community college.

Although this path doesn’t hold the prestige that a four-year college does, community colleges don’t have the high price tag of four-year colleges, either. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education Almanac, average full-time tuition at community colleges ranges from a low of $718 per year in California to a high of $5,720 per year in New Hampshire, with a national average of roughly $2,000 per year. By contrast, four-year public colleges cost two to four times more, while private colleges can charge 10 times as much as community colleges.

With significant cost savings, community colleges afford time to look around, explore different majors and find out what really lights your fire. Community colleges tend to have a supportive social and learning environment as well, and a great many instructors are passionate about the subjects they teach due to their direct involvement in the private sector. For many students, a community college is an inexpensive way to get the hang of college life and find their true interest. For others, community college is part of a life-long learning experience — you’ll find students of all ages there.

Erika Jahneke, 34, a writer and disability advocate living in Phoenix, Ariz., went directly from high school to Glendale Community College in Phoenix in 1991. “I was kind of an ‘apple polisher’ in school. I worked hard for good grades and was known as ‘the smart girl in the wheelchair,'” she recalls. Jahneke has cerebral palsy and requires some attendant care. She received invites from universities, but the combination of intense scholastics, finding housing and attendant care, were overwhelming. “I wanted to go to one of the universities where the name itself was impressive. That first semester at GCC, I felt like I was really slumming. But over time I saw this was a better way to go. It gave me time to find housing and figure out how to live on my own.”

By 1993 Jahneke had found supported housing in Mesa, Ariz., where she attended Mesa Community College. Both GCC and MCC had small class sizes, tutoring was available, and if she had questions or needed accommodations from an instructor, it was easy to drop by their office and ask. “Later, I found out things worked different at the university. It was more difficult to just sit down with a professor, and if I needed some type of accommodation, I had to go through Disabled Student Services, a situation where professors were afraid to talk with me and would talk with disabled student services instead,” she says.

“When I first started classes, I wanted to be a psychologist. But when I got into it, honestly I think it was more that I needed to see a psychologist rather than become one.” She switched her major to Spanish. Then she took an anthropology class that she just loved and considered going in that direction. Also, Jahneke had worked on the school newspaper in high school, so she kept gravitating back toward a journalism and English major.

“I don’t know if it is me, or the chair, or what, but people really open up and tell me things. I figured I had this gift, I like writing so much, I might as well get paid for it,” she says. “The community college experience really helped me zero in on what I wanted to do. There was a lot of support and it was a close-knit group. I also found the classes allowed me to be creative. If I had an interest that strayed from the syllabus, that was usually OK as long as I was learning.”

Timing is Everything
In 1995 Jahneke transferred to Arizona State University in Tempe, Ariz. “Getting accepted to ASU with good grades from MCC was no problem. However, I wouldn’t have made it there right out of high school. Getting the basic classes out of the way and learning to live on my own at the community college level was important.” In 1997 she earned her bachelor’s in journalism with a minor in English from ASU. She gives Arizona Vocational Rehabilitation high marks for picking up the entire tab. These days Jahneke is making a living as a writer — she is working on her second novel and has written essays, blogs, and short stories.

Good timing also helped Jena Coghlan, 33, from Spokane, Wash. In 1995 Coghlan — then a newly injured T12-L1 incomplete para — was doing ambulation rehab at the PEERS program in Beverly Hills, Calif. New Mobility founder and publisher Sam Maddox was working on a story about the PEERS program. Maddox offered her a job at NM, located in Malibu at the time. Coghlan found a rent-controlled apartment, took the job and decided to give Santa Monica Community College a try. She liked the small community feel of SMCC, met many new friends and found the instructors to be very supportive. She also gives DSS thumbs up for help with counseling and class sign-up — instead of waiting in line with everybody else in the college, DSS signs you up.

Coghlan didn’t have a major in mind, so she started getting some of the basic requirements out of the way and looking at options. “It seemed everybody I knew was taking art history, so I signed up for some courses. I found the instructors were excellent and really got me excited about it. I met a lot of different people and made a lot of friends. I also found that, because I liked the classes so much, it was easy to do the work and I could get As and Bs without too much difficulty.”

By 1997 Coghlan had enough credits to do an Intersegmental General Education Curriculum Certificate transfer. This gave her the option to transfer into UCLA or USC. Coghlan chose UCLA, but the change from SMCC was a shock. Money was tight, Voc Rehab was out of money at the time, and UCLA was huge and overwhelming. She did pretty well for the first two quarters, but by the third quarter she was feeling isolated on the huge campus, got very depressed and ended up flunking out.

A new boyfriend in Coghlan’s life brought her to Anchorage, Alaska, where she enrolled in the University of Alaska. “UA had the same small supportive feel that SMCC had, and I did well and earned my BA in history,” she says. In Alaska, Voc Rehab – flush with oil money – paid for tuition, books, transportation, and even bought her a new computer. These days Coghlan is working as an artist, making fiber art, such as artistic quilts.

A Lifetime of Learning
For some, community college is a means to a degree or vocation, but for others, it offers a lifetime of learning. In 1971 Candace Millsop, then 19, married an Air Force man. The couple had two kids by the time she was 21. From 1975 to 1977 Millsop took design, drawing, and art classes at Glendale Community College, while her husband was stationed in Phoenix, Ariz. Millsop really enjoyed the classes and became lifelong friends with Darlene Goto, one of her art teachers.

Unable to paint with her right hand because of MS, Candace Millsop learned to use her left at a community college art class.

Unable to paint with her right hand because of MS, Candace Millsop learned to use her left at a community college art class.

In 1977 Millsop entered two of her graphic arts pieces in a GCC art show. She didn’t win, but somebody from Hallmark attended the show, saw her work and offered her a full-time job at Hallmark as a graphic artist. Unfortunately, her husband was being transferred to an army base in Wurzburg, Germany, so she had to decline.

Millsop’s community college experience did lead to jobs in graphic arts, however. In 1990 she and her husband divorced, and she moved back to Phoenix. She got a job with the state and continued to work part time in graphic arts. In 1995 Millsop was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. By 2001 the MS had progressed, so she had to stop working. She thought her days as an artist were over.

One day in 2003, Millsop joined her former art teacher, Darlene Goto, for coffee. Millsop explained how the MS had taken away the use of her right hand. She recalls their conversation: “Darlene said, ‘Well ya know, you really ought to come back to school.’ So I said, ‘What for?’ And she replied, ‘You can train that left hand to paint.’ And I replied, ‘Yeah right.’ But she said, ‘Really, really you can!'” Goto kept after her and Millsop, at age 51, signed up for the next semester of water color class at GCC. She loved the classes and was able to train her left hand to draw and paint as well as she had with her right.

“MS causes me a lot of pain and depression, but when I’m painting, I’m not in pain or depressed. All I’m thinking about is what colors I want to mix together, how I want to put them down and what I want to paint.” She has continued taking classes and artwork and has won two honorable mentions and a blue ribbon.

Into the Larger World
For Eric Harper, 29, of Jacksonville, Ore., community college has led to an adventure of a lifetime and a lifetime of adventure. At 14 Harper dove into shallow water and ended up a C5-6 incomplete quad. He finished high school through independent study. In 2000 he enrolled in Rogue Community College’s Medford, Ore., campus. When Harper first started at RCC, he figured he would major in computers. That quickly changed. One of his first classes was Intercultural Communication. “The class was taught by a woman who had traveled all over the world and met so many different people and had seen so many cultures — I was really inspired. So inspired that I ended up becoming an anthropology major. At RCC my teachers were great and we were all on a first name basis. A couple of them have become good friends. They were so interesting that I was just absorbing everything they would say, and that made it easy to get good grades.”

World-traveller Eric Harper got the confidence he needed to trot the globe at his local community college.

World-traveller Eric Harper got the confidence he needed to trot the globe at his local community college.

Harper’s fascination with anthropology sparked his interest in joining two professors and five students on a unique RCC study program. The program was a month-long journey through the historical sites, beaches, rugged landscapes and ancient deserts of South Africa and Namibia. “The trip was amazing. It was led by a humanities professor and my friend Kay Aldrich, an anthropology professor. We got to meet and hang out with indigenous people, see amazing wild life and experience the real Africa,” he says.

Harper had taken a job working at the counseling desk at RCC, and when he got back from the trip, he became the star of RCC. “People would come up to me, give me the thumbs up and say, ‘Hey you’re the guy in the chair that went to Africa.'”

In 2004 Harper transferred to Southern Oregon University in nearby Ashland, where he earned a bachelors in anthropology and a certificate in Native American studies. His community college and his Africa study trip spurred a lust for adventure travel. Since then, he has traveled to Jamaica and Australia.  His current plan is to volunteer at a Native American cultural center. His long-term goal is to open his own travel and tourism business specializing in cultural and ecological travel. Harper is also thinking about moving to Australia to go after his masters degree.

Learning should be a lifelong endeavor. Give your local community college a look. It’s affordable, supportive, fun, and who knows, it may uncover a talent, passion, or skill you never knew you had.

Like the saying goes: “Do what you love for a living, and you won’t have to work a day in your life.”

Navigating Community College
From a young age I wanted to be a professional freestyle snow skier and stuntman. I devoted my high school years to training for skiing and left behind a transcript of Ds and Fs. In my junior year I passed the GED, quit school and headed for the slopes. It was an amazing ride, but ended with a bad crash on an icy ski slope in 1985.

All of a sudden I was a T10 para — limited education, no money, no job skills, little direction. Fortunately, a counselor at the rehab hospital put me in touch with Voc Rehab in my hometown of Hayward, Calif. Before my first appointment, a friend pulled me aside and said, “They get paid for success stories — what you get depends on how successful it ‘looks’ like you’ll be. No matter how you are feeling, act positive and motivated.”

At the meeting I said I wanted to go to Chabot, the local community college in Hayward, and major in international business. I didn’t really know what international business was, but it was the ’80s, everybody was a business major and I liked to travel, so it sounded good. A deal was struck: Voc Rehab would pay tuition, books and travel as long as I got good grades.

My next step was to get a counselor at Disabled Student Services at Chabot. I was fortunate. My counselor, Shari Jacobson, was the best. She knew all the instructors and helped steer me toward the ones who got the best feedback. She also knew a few shortcuts, like which classes fulfill double requirements.

My first day at Chabot was one of the most terrifying days of my life. I was 25, had traveled the world and performed dangerous stunts in front of tens of thousands of people, but being a new para at a college with a D and F high school record — now this was scary! I was sure everybody on the campus was staring and laughing at me. Ironically, that day was probably one of the greatest days of my life, the start of my “second life.”

I worked hard on basics, like remedial math and English. Fortunately, the first instructors I had were outstanding — like the math teacher who told stories about the formulas so right brain thinkers like me could remember. At this time I realized there is more than one teacher for each subject. I quickly became a master at taking advantage of “the last day to drop a class with a W” (withdrawal with no negative consequences). If an instructor didn’t grab my attention, I would drop the class and find a better one. If it was a required class and none of the instructors grabbed my attention, I would get into my “debate” mode and study the subject like crazy so I could argue a point. It worked! Between great instructors, doing the work, and “studying so I could argue,” my D and F record was replaced with a list of As and Bs.

In the process I found that international business was not for me. I decided to try language, which was also not for me. Air traffic controller? A little too type A for me. One day I passed by the Chabot Television studio. It looked intimidating and inviting at the same time. During my ski career I had always been drawn to video equipment. I signed up for a broadcasting class. It turned out to be the most fun/most difficult class I had taken. Most fun because the moment I wheeled into the studio it felt like home, and Gene Houck, the instructor, had a great dry sense of humor and loved to teach. Most difficult because Gene demanded excellence. He would say, “Working in television you can do something wrong only once.”

With Gene’s help, I wrote, produced, directed and edited a video about wheelchair sports — a video that led me to paying jobs in various areas of the wheelchair industry, an Emmy award, and in a roundabout way, writing for New Mobility.

I took my time — five years to be exact – to earn my AA degree, with honors. Then I transferred to San Francisco State University and studied broadcast and electronic communication. SFSU was also a great experience. I took my time at SFSU and graduated magna cum laude in 1994. Not bad for a D and F high school student who decided to give community college a try.

Advantages of Community Colleges
By Kara B. Sheridan

Students with disabilities are pursuing secondary education at higher rates than ever before. The majority of these students (60 percent) are selecting community colleges, or two-year programs, as the avenue to further develop their skills and prepare for careers. Community colleges offer an open-access policy aimed to serve all segments of society. With an emphasis on tailoring teaching methods and supportive services to individual students, community colleges can provide a comprehensive education that is within practical reach. Many students with disabilities have found community colleges to be the best choice to further their education.

Finding the Best Fit
Becky Sisco is a 22-year-old community college student with osteogenesis imperfecta who uses a motorized wheelchair. Her search for the place to develop her skills in advertising and graphic design didn’t take her far from home. Sisco has attended Mitchell Community College in Statesville, N.C., for approximately four years, and it’s only 15 minutes from her home. “I always knew that was where I was going to go,” she says. With financial limitations and the increasing price of transportation, many others are joining Sisco in their choice to stay local to attend college.

Unfortunately, some students don’t enjoy this level of ease in selecting their place of study. When Candance Harrison, 27, began searching for the best place to attend college, she wasn’t aware that several deadends and frustrating decisions would lie ahead. Harrison, who has cerebral palsy, was accepted to both two-year programs and four-year universities, but accessibility concerns, lack of transportation options, and the high cost of tuition narrowed her choice to Edgecombe Community College in Rocky Mount, N.C.

“I originally intended to transfer, but I fell into a comfortable routine with Edgecombe. I embraced it as my school, and after my first semester I was looking forward to the next,” says Harrison. Even after being offered the opportunity to attend a small, liberal arts four-year college, Harrison decided to follow through with her commitment to Edgecombe all the way to her associate in arts degree in 2007.

One of the most heralded advantages of attending community colleges – individualized accommodations – may be improving the success rates of students with disabilities. Research suggests that two-year programs often surpass universities in their delivery of unique, expansive support services to this population of diverse students with equally diverse educational goals. Harrison’s school eliminated her need to meander across campus by centralizing her classes in a few buildings. Computer labs were adjusted and the longer her relationship with the school, the more services were provided. Nearly 80 percent of community colleges offer students formal disability support services.

Another advantage of community colleges – affordable tuition rates – paved the way for Harrison, Sisco, and other students to pursue their degrees. Sisco considered financial variables that most college-bound students don’t have to think about: “When you factor in the costs of nurses, one-on-one attendants, and adaptations that would be required to live away from home, tuition to a major university would be astronomical.”

Whitney Sivill, 31, a stay-at-home mother and full-time manual wheelchair user, was able to utilize the advantageous costs of community college in a unique way to maximize the reach of a scholarship she received. What wouldn’t have paid for even an entire semester at a university allowed Whitney to complete three semesters at Salt Lake Community College in Tooele, Utah.

Because community colleges are primarily attended by commuters, students also save money on the costly expenses of dormitory living. Matt Watson, a 19-year-old with muscular dystrophy who lives in Jackson, Miss., used nearby Hinds Community College as a stepping stone to ease into the transition to a larger university.

Graduating high school early catapulted Watson into the prospect of balancing home health aides, his first year of independent living, and the changing academic demands of secondary education, all before most teens have even moved out of their parents’ house. Watson explains, “It can be hard for people who use wheelchairs to adapt to independent, big university life, because there can be so many challenges.” With the ability to live and tend to medical concerns at home for the first year, Watson was able to earn credits and eventually transfer to Mississippi State University.

Succeeding in a Diverse Environment
Not all students live at home while studying at community colleges. A growing number of international students with disabilities are utilizing their student visas to benefit from our country’s emphasis on providing access to education for all. Many have found programs offered by two-year colleges better meet their need than larger universities, where they could potentially be lost in the shuffle. Most community colleges offer intensive English language classes, which provide a shared learning environment for international students and other non-native English speakers.  Because more community colleges offer outreach programs that bridge a student’s experience from learning to working, international and domestic students with disabilities also enjoy the opportunities to immediately apply what they learn in the classroom to work in the real world.

Watson and all other students interviewed for this article disagree with the commonly held misconception that two-year programs don’t provide the atmosphere for a true “college experience.” Because community colleges often cater to a more diverse group of students in age, background, and educational pursuits than traditional four-year universities, Watson’s community college offered the perfect environment for an aspiring journalist.

Harrison also cited her school’s diversity as a strength of her experience. “Instead of just a bunch of immature kids all attempting to mellow out and grow up, you’ll find older adults looking to improve their skills for work, people looking to change their careers, and young people wanting a gentler way of getting used to college. Smaller classes give you the chance to get to know your classmates and have them get to know you,” she says.

A more intimate college environment allowed Sivill to showcase her skills on stage through her school’s drama program. Previous theater directors had responded to Sivill’s disability, a T3 SCI, by assigning her primarily backstage roles. While attending community college, Sivill starred in two major productions. She equates her experience with drama as “a creative outlet that helped me keep my sanity through the drab academic stuff.” Sivill also enjoyed church activities hosted on her campus. Participation in extracurricular activities is one way for students with disabilities to enjoy the social rewards of college life. Many community colleges are comparable to traditional four-year universities with the expansion of food courts, welcoming gathering places, and sporting events to provide opportunities to meet new people and establish friendships.

While community colleges certainly offer a wide range of extracurricular activities and social forays, barriers to inclusion sometimes bar students with disabilities from experiencing all a campus has to offer. Harrison and Sisco were both limited in their participation by the lack of accessible transportation. Time constraints on the paratransit bus schedule forced Harrison to pick and choose classes offered during the window of time she could get to and from her school.  Lack of accessibility on campus has limited Sisco’s participation in the Student Government Association, an on-campus leadership organization for students. The club’s meetings are held upstairs in the only building on campus without an elevator.

Encountering barriers like these has strengthened Sisco’s motivation to pursue her passion outside the classroom — advocacy for the rights of people with disabilities. The flexible academic demands of Sisco’s community college have allowed her to become a leader in the North Carolina Youth Leadership Network, the Osteogenesis Imperfecta Foundation, and Family Voices. Sisco may be attending a small local school to earn her degree, but her advocacy work allows her to make an impact on a national level.

Students with disabilities have found good reasons to choose community colleges to further their education. These small, contained campuses have risen to the challenge to meet the needs of this diverse group of students. People who have attended community college squash myths that two-year programs fail to offer a wide selection of extracurricular activities. Many students with disabilities flourish within these individualized environments. Community colleges are opening doors to the future for students with disabilities, both inside and outside the classroom.