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.