Californians tell their stories
of getting in, dropping out,
and making it through
Postcards from the College Journey
Californians tell their stories of getting in, dropping out, and making it through
The college path. For many, it’s bumpy and twisty. Some struggle to find it in the first place or lose the trail somewhere along the way. Others just flat out have no interest in pursuing it at all.
We’re spending this year talking with Californians about their experiences with college, with a special focus on telling the stories of people who live in parts of the state where college-going has long lagged behind.
Some people, we know, are much more likely to enroll in college and to finish it than others. If you’re Black or Hispanic, live in a poor neighborhood, or would be the first in your family to go to college your likelihood of earning a degree is lower than your white and wealthier peers.
Consider these numbers: More than one in three Californians has a bachelor’s degree. But barely more than one in 10 — 13 percent — of Hispanic state residents do. For Black Californians, the number is just over one in four.
Geography matters too. Generally, in California, if you live in a coastal county you’re more likely than someone in an inland or rural region to go to college and to get through.
When you look at who has earned education credentials of any kind post high-school, more than half of Californians have. But in a place like agricultural San Joaquin County, it’s just over one in four. In rural Lassen County, it’s not even one in five.
The numbers delineate the stark gaps. But they don’t tell us much about the why — or what could make a difference. For that we need to learn more about the who.
What really gets in the way of individuals’ college dreams? What barriers are too high, what needs are more pressing? Where do people get turned around after they do enroll, or what makes them steer clear of the whole college journey in the first place?
At the same time, how do others find their way through? What, or who, keeps them going? Why do they persevere?
Photos by Salgu Wissmath. Interviews by Victoria Franco & Naomi Harris.
‘What do I want for myself?’
Ally Baca, 22, graduated from San Joaquin Delta College and now attends California Polytechnic State University. She is majoring in business fashion.
School has always been my safe place. No matter what’s going on in my life, I’ll focus on school and school will be there. School is a place where I can control my surroundings and if I can do good, it’ll better myself.
But along the way that kind of changed. This summer I lost my boyfriend in a car accident and it’s been really tough.
At first, I was taking 16 units thinking I was going to be able to handle it. I had to kind of humble myself and be like, ‘OK, this is not a good time for you and that’s okay.’ So I dropped two classes. I’m pretty studious. But as of right now, it’s kind of hard to find any motivation to get through school.
I never ever thought that something could affect me this much because I’ve been through a lot already. And look at me, like, I’m still going to school, I’m still super good at it. Nothing stopped me. And then this happened.
I don’t know. What do I want for myself now? I’ve had to ask that question because I realized that school isn’t the same for me. I’m trying to find a landing place.
— Interview by Naomi Harris
‘I just really wasn’t ready’
Leti Paniagua, 24, has attended San Jose State University, San Joaquin Delta College, and California State University, Stanislaus. She’s not currently enrolled in college but hopes to return to Stanislaus and graduate from there with a major in social sciences.
It’s not that I didn’t want to go back. I couldn’t go back.
January 2017 was when I came home. My mom thought that she was just picking me up for the rest of winter break. I knew I was done, I was kicked out pretty much because my grades weren’t good enough for me to stay at San Jose State.
She picked me up in the morning and she talked to me and she asked, How are your grades? I was crying. She was yelling at me. She was blaming it on all my boyfriend saying that he was a distraction. Oh, that was horrible.
She’s like, what’s really going to happen, you’re gonna end up pregnant and living here, and you’re not gonna go back to school. I was really hurt. I was like, wow, okay, that’s who you think you raised.
I wanted to go to college honestly for my family, for my brothers. Not necessarily for me. My brothers said I had to go to college because I was my mom’s last chance to get out of the hood. They said I had to do better, get out of Stockton, be the one.
I was thinking, why do I have to be the one? Why was all the pressure put on me?
When Delta College, community college, was always brought up, whether it be with my brothers, or even just at Edison High School, it was always so talked down, it was a stigma. They said it was like a second Edison, when you go to Delta you’re lost or you’re gonna get lost, you’re gonna get distracted by all your friends. So, I had the grades to go to a four year so I thought why not go to a four year?
But once I got there, I just really wasn’t ready. I wasn’t prepared at all.
Finding something that you really like is the hardest part. Because if you don’t like it, you’re not going to be able to stick with it. I’m still honestly trying to find what I want to do.
— Interview by Victoria Franco
‘I’m still here’
Vivienne Aguilar, 22, is a graduate of San Joaquin Delta College who’s now attending California State University Monterey Bay, where she is majoring in humanities and communication. She is scheduled to graduate in May.
I ran out of the classroom crying. I’ve never felt so ashamed, I felt like I didn’t deserve to be here.
My professor came out and asked me what was going on and I told her I wasn’t prepared, and she told me “Ok that’s fine, I read your work, you’re very clearly capable and you can pass this class as easy as anybody else.”
She was really begging me to come back in, but I went in, grabbed my stuff, and I went home and dropped the class.
In my first semester of college, it was so horrifying, because they don’t tell you as a person coming straight out of high school that three units equals like six hours of homework. There was no preparation.
I realized though, that I am super capable when I have a team.
So, my boyfriend graduated and came to Delta and he needed to take English 1A so I was like, alright, I’m gonna do it again.
We had a class together and we had an even more amazing teacher, who really got us. She led us, she picked books that were relevant to our age group, she really cared about what we were doing.
She was jazzed about it. So I was jazzed about it, it was nice. I realized it all comes back to the professor. If the professor cares about their topic then people care about the topics. That was the connector for me.
I ended up transferring to California State University Monterey Bay and they were like “We need English tutors.”
I said “Well, I speak English and one of the requirements was to have passed English 1A with an A or a B and I said, “Hey I did that.”
So now I tutor English, I am an embedded coach.
It’s a superpower to tell other students: I failed my first English 1A class and I’m still here.
— Interview by Victoria Franco
‘I Want Better for Myself’
Ayaana Williams, 22, is a graduate of San Joaquin Delta College who’s now a senior at Sacramento State, where she is scheduled to graduate this spring from the journalism program.
I don’t aim to be rich, I just really want to be stable. And I want to be happy with the path I’ve chosen.
What I’ve seen in the past is just my parents, they just worked their whole lives. It’s not that they didn’t try college, it just didn’t end up working out for them. They both started very small, independent companies, like they did delivery driving. And then they had a smoothie stand in the park. They had all their drinks named after all of us kids, it was really cute. I think I was Ayanna Banana or something.
But there were obviously setbacks. Both my mom and my dad had some struggles with addiction. And it definitely set them back a lot. They both tried to build some kind of financial success together, despite not having an education. But at the end, it ended up just making them work their whole lives, and I don’t want to have to do that. My dad ended up having to work his whole life and died with zero money in his pocket.
My biggest goal was to never take out a student loan. I’m finally going to graduate next semester. And being able to say I didn’t take out any student loans was my biggest accomplishment ever. I was so scared of that.
My sister went to a trade school to do culinary. She didn’t get a full bachelor’s degree or anything. She was only there for about two years, and she took out student loans to go. Then she ended up having a kid and didn’t do anything with her degree, even to this day, like seven, eight years later, and she’s still $30,000 in debt. I just saw that and I was like hell no, I’m not doing that.
Just the idea that I don’t have anything to fall back on as far as going back to a parent’s house, or having somebody to ask for money, I don’t have that. I guess that’s driving me forward more than anything, making me not want to give up. Last year, as I was transferring over to Sacramento State, my dad passed. It’s not that my dad was providing much for me financially,but I think that once I started losing people, it made it a lot more clear to me that I really am on my own.
My mom just wants me to be happy. But my dad definitely wanted me to be successful. Because he wasn’t. He wanted me to build some sort of financial stability. He was the one person that let me know how proud he was.
So, despite everything, I felt like I had to keep going, not just for me, but for him too. Aside from wanting me to finish college to be happy, he always made me feel like it meant something to keep going.
— Interview by Sara Hebel
‘School has never really been for me’
Mikael Honzell, 25, is a graduate of San Joaquin Delta College and is now enrolled in Cal State University at Sacramento. He is majoring in journalism.
Being at Sac State feels good because I made it out. Now that I’ve made it out of Delta, I know I can make it out of Sac State. But I’m failing most of my classes. It kind of sucks but at the same time, like it’s just a weird balance to try and hold. I have friends who are in the same situation — working two jobs. I had to take French. But there’s too much going on outside of school for me to focus on learning French.
See, that’s what I’m saying. I’m doing bad this semester. I have a friend, she is more worked up about it than I am. She’s like, how are you not stressed out about this? I prioritize things differently and I stress out about things that matter to me more.
School has never really been for me. But my mom really wanted me to go. Sometimes advisors would give you the wrong advice. You would end up having to take a class you didn’t need. Delta felt exactly like high school and I didn’t like that at first. For two years, I would just go to class and go home, go to class and go home. My uncle told me about construction and how they make a lot of money doing stuff like that and that was my plan. But when I graduated high school, I was like I want to do something where I feel like, I’m not just working for a paycheck. I want to do something I’m passionate about.
That’s when I found journalism and writing. I’ve always liked to write, but it never occurred to me that you could write and get paid for it, or like, do it as a job. With journalism, once I started doing that I stopped taking care of the other classes because that’s all I wanted to do. I was doing something I love for the first time in a long time. Like I’d never found a passion. I’m very closed off in a way so it took me a lot to open up to people. That’s why I joined journalism too because it made me go out and talk to strangers and shit. That scared the hell out of me.
— Interview by Naomi Harris
Reporting made possible with support from College Futures Foundation.