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Why Community College Was the Best Decision I Made: A Personal Story

Young man with sunglasses smiling

Stephen Austin Oliveras, 25, is a born and raised resident of New Haven, Connecticut. A proud Boricua, Stephen began his college career at Gateway Community College in New Haven and graduated from Quinnipiac University with a degree in International Business. Stephen currently works in marketing and real estate at Farnam Realty Group, known as the number one rental agency in New Haven. We connected with Stephen to discuss his decision to attend community college, and how it has taken him on the path he is on now.

Stephen attended a public charter school known for placing a huge emphasis on attending a four-year college or university. After receiving 6-7 acceptance letters from different schools and reviewing the pricing, he felt that nothing made sense to him. Though he made decent grades, he was not offered a full ride to any school and did not receive any scholarships. He described how he wasn’t sure what he wanted to major in and felt overwhelmed by the price tags associated with traditional four-year schools. After talking it over with his mom, they decided that attending a community college for his first two years would be the best decision. Unfortunately, Stephen described that he received a lack of support from his counselors, who cited low success rates at community college. One counselor even went so far as to tell him that he wouldn’t finish his first year! Stephen’s school hosted an annual Senior Signing Day every year for seniors to announce which schools they would be at in the fall. On the day of the ceremony, Stephen described the daunting feeling he experienced as he made his speech.

As he listened to the majority of folks announcing plans to attend four-year schools and even Ivy League universities, he admits that he thought “a little less” of himself for not attending a “big name school.

He credits his friends and family for showing him love and helping him remain unwavering in his decision and prove his counselor wrong. Socially, Stephen felt that though attending a community college wasn’t the “typical college experience”, he was able to build connections, make friends, and network both on and off the campus. Because he was living at home and commuting, he felt inspired to define his own experience and take the steps to branch out and make friends. Though sometimes, he revealed, he would still have to confront lingering doubts leftover from high school. Once in college, Stephen described having to push through similar feelings as he visited friends and socialized at different campuses across Connecticut, including Yale. He shared that when he was asked where he went, he’d pause and think to himself,

I go to community college, you go to one of the best schools.” Yet, he said, “I had to push through psychologically, I had to remind myself I’m still just as smart as them.

Professor and students

And “just as smart” he realized he was when he met his college professors at Gateway. His professors were equipped with teaching experience from all over the state, including Southern Connecticut State University, the University of Connecticut, and, yes, even Yale University. Stephen shared that his professors made it a point to emphasize that Gateway was a college and not an extension of high school. He shared that his professors wanted them to know that their credentials were legitimate, and that they deserved the same respect as any other college professor. Having gone through both Gateway Community College and Quinnipiac University, Stephen recounts that the rigor of the work felt exactly the same. He expressed that he could not say Gateway was any “easier,” and that it was exactly on par with how classes were run at Quinnipiac in terms of syllabus, deadlines, and exams. In fact, he is grateful to his experience at Gateway for providing him with the space to figure himself out academically before committing to a traditional four-year school.

By the time Stephen graduated from Quinnipiac University, he felt relieved that he had accumulated only a third of the average college debt of some of his peers. This reaffirmed his decision to attend a community college in the first place! Being a resident of New Haven, Stephen was able to complete his first two years of college completely free, with the exception of paying for books. This allowed him the freedom to explore different career paths and change his major, which he did a few times, from engineering to accounting to international business. Additionally, Stephen shared that he had great counselors at Gateway that supported him as he explored all his options and helped him get scholarships when he decided to take his next step and finish his college career at Quinnipiac.

Having studied International Business, Stephen thought he wanted to live the “corporate lifestyle.” There was so much that attracted him to this, including good money and the ability to travel for work. However, after completing an internship at a bank, he realized that it was not what he wanted to do full time. Though it was a great experience for him, he did not enjoy being confined to a cubicle working independently on spreadsheets. Having worked many different jobs in his time, Stephen learned that he enjoyed working with people through his retail experience. While working at a T-Mobile, Stephen connected with a fraternity brother of his who was working in real estate to pick his brain. This inspired Stephen to apply to his job “on a whim.” After a stellar interview, he was hired to work on marketing for his company and then, later, became an agent. Stephen loves that he is able to travel all over Connecticut and meet different people from diverse backgrounds as they work together to make one of the biggest purchases of their lives, finding a home.

For those of you reading this who are considering community college, Stephen stated,

“There will always be a lot of opinions no matter what school you go to, but remember you’re the one sitting in the classroom, taking the exams, and paying the debt when the bill comes in the mail.

Though many folks will tell you that college debt is normal, many students at 17 and 18 do not have the financial literacy to make such a huge decision with repercussions that will stay with them for decades to come, especially first-generation college students and students of color.

He encourages you to ask yourself, “financially, is this smart? When I graduate, is my major going to be able to support that debt along with the dreams I have? Even with a college degree, nothing is guaranteed. So, seek counseling from people you trust who know what they’re talking about, and never take advice from someone who has not walked in your path. It sounds corny, but follow your heart. At the end of the day, it’s your journey, your path, and you gotta do what makes you happy.”



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