By Esther Ho
It was the end of my senior year of high school, and for what seemed like the thousandth time, I awkwardly mumbled, “Um, oh, yeah, I’m going to community college…” in response to the dreaded question of where I would be heading in the fall.
Looking back, I would have gleefully announced my response had I known then the myriad of positive experiences that lay ahead.
I always got the same reaction. Raised eyebrows, inquisitive look, and the good old, half-hearted, “Ohhhh, that’s cool...”
I’d shoot back some ultra-clever reply along the lines of “Yeah, so, um, where are you going?”
Stanford. Harvard. Yale. Berkeley.
These were just a few of the universities that my classmates from the second-ranked school on the list of Best College Preparatory Public High Schools in California went to. Going to community college was seen as failure in the Bay Area, a stigma that I could feel from the gaze of everyone who asked me where I was going.
Silicon Valley, the heart and soul of technology, innovation, and upper-class suburban wealth, does an excellent job of conveying heavy stereotypes of a very specific type of lifestyle: wealthy, liberal engineers who frivolously spend money on exorbitantly priced avocado toast and nitro cold brew. But when does that stereotype fall short?
Well, for starters, I come from an Asian family that lives in the Bay Area. That’s pretty typical.
What isn’t is the fact that my parents fell from being multi-millionaires to below the poverty line in the economic crisis of 2008 and they have seven children. Six of those have paid their own way through college or landed full scholarships at universities such as Stanford, Illinois, and UC Santa Barbara. My siblings now work at Google, Stanford Hospital, Facebook, and Warner Brothers. Taking money from our parents has never been an option.
I am the second to last child and the first to go to community college. I had ecstatically committed to the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign when I was accepted there in 2016. But a few days later, my oldest sister gently chided me into make a spreadsheet of the loans I’d be taking on and how long it would take for me to pay them off.
It was a harsh reality check. I’d be paying loans, if I was lucky, for the next 13 years. I sadly retracted my signature of intent to register and enrolled at my local community college, De Anza.
At this point in my life, I was only sure of two things. The first was that I was sorely disappointed, embarrassed, and felt like the epitome of a millennial failure. The second was that I knew I needed to start saving money so that I could transfer out as fast as possible.
The summer before starting college, I founded my own volleyball camp by advertising myself on a local neighborhood app called NextDoor. What started out as one-on-one lessons in a park with a $100 grass volleyball net that I had ordered on Amazon grew into a camp that coached over 40 different athletes and made an average of $60 an hour.
For the next two years, I played two sports—volleyball and track and field—to get priority registration. I was named Scholar Athlete of the Year by my college, and juggled three part-time jobs.
I had no idea where I’d be going, but I was slowly learning to love community college. I had met some of the most motivated individuals that I’ve ever met at community college. And I had saved over $15,000, which was enough to cover my first year’s tuition, once I factored in my financial aid.
It’s been almost a year since I transferred to UCSB and I am proud to write that I will graduate with no student loans. I consider myself so lucky to have been able to experience community college and for the opportunity to venture beyond classrooms filled with rich education and put the knowledge I’ve learned to work in the outside world.
By creating and running my own business and learning how to be independent, I’ve learned things that cannot be found in a classroom—lessons that are unpremeditated. Although my financial situation has not changed substantially, I know I’m slowly moving on the right path because I’ve already encountered a form of success.
“Failure” begets success because it changes someone in ways that they never thought possible. The greatest lesson that I have ever learned is that there is always something positive to take from a negative circumstance. I will carry that through the rest of my time here at UC Santa Barbara and every day of my life after.
Esther Ho is a third-year UC Santa Barbara student, majoring in Communication. She wrote this piece in her Writing Program course Journalism for Web and Social Media.