More stories from Californians about
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
What really gets in the way of college dreams? What barriers are too high, what needs are more pressing? And how do others find their way?
What, or who, keeps them going? Why do they persevere?
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. (See the first round of these interviews.)
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.
Photos by Salgu Wissmath. Interviews by Victoria Franco & Naomi Harris.
‘I need to go back’
Aleah Medina, 21, attended Riverside City College in 2020 before dropping out. She is now back in college and hopes to become a counselor.
It was February 2020. I was in my room thinking about dropping out and had a little breaking point. I felt like I got kind of burnt out.
I was working at Riverside City College, and I would work at my parents’ restaurant either on weekends or after school depending on my schedule. I’ve been in the restaurant since I was five years old, so it was a lot to balance.
My mom was so mad. And my dad was just like, “Do whatever you want, but you’re gonna learn the hard way if you don’t go back.”
Coming from a Mexican background it’s more like you’re striving for something bigger and it’s good. It’s gonna get you somewhere. But I think it was just overwhelming because there’s so many steps just to apply to college and then after applying you have to do so much.
Once I dropped out and started realizing I was working a lot more I was like, “No, I need to go back because I’m not gonna be doing this all the time.”
I started realizing I’m getting older. What do I actually like? What am I striving for?
My parents are my motivation in a way because my mom would come pick us up from school and we would be at the restaurant until eight or nine o’clock at night because they were working their asses off. So I feel like, “OK, I can do it for you as well as for me.”
When I came back to school my mom was like “See, I know you could do it.”
— Interview by Victoria Franco
‘To speak up for myself has been the most strenuous thing’
Jones, 23, is set to graduate from Riverside City College in June. He will be transferring to the University of Oregon to continue his studies in business administration.
Growing up, I felt like having a disability was an embarrassment.
Like how you would see TV shows back in the early 2000s. A student that’s trying to raise their hand for a question and if they raised their hand, they’re getting laughed at. That’s what I felt. When I became more aware of my disability, I felt like learning was not my expertise.
I started at RCC using a walker and wasn’t able to use my legs. I still can’t feel my legs at all. That’s from a rare disease called spinal muscular atrophy. It’s something that’s not curable.
Epilepsy affected me mentally too — in the way I communicate and can operate with many tasks. Now I feel like it’s also affected the way I remember.
To speak up for myself has been the most strenuous thing for me in college.
Sometimes when I have an assignment that’s due the next day, I wouldn’t remember. It would be difficult for me to even speak up and say, “Hey, I missed this assignment because of my memory.”
Sometimes I want to do normal things that people can do and I feel like it’s very difficult to really find friends that understand my situation.
But I feel like RCC is sort of like my second home. I have some people that I can talk to, some people that I can enjoy a day with. It’s also a place where I can even express my ideas. My passion is really business. After taking some classes here I’ve really changed my mind on how I see money.
I want to advocate for people who are like me.
— Interview by Victoria Franco
‘I see it as a job’
Solis, 28, attends the University of California Riverside, where he majors in biology.
I was in the military for four years right after school. I needed to get out of my house, I needed a job, and I wasn’t doing amazing in school.
I didn’t have the best home life. I would always be up at all hours of the night. I wouldn’t exactly be out and about, but I’d be in my room because it was just too damn loud all the time.
In the infantry, I didn’t have time for schooling, unless I was on a deployment and we were on a ship and we were just traveling from port to port. Then maybe we’d have time for a couple classes.
When I got out, I was 22 and I was thinking, “Hey, should I stay? Should I go? What’s gonna happen here?”
I got out. I wanted to be a firefighter. That decision led me to try to go to biology, so I could try to go to medical school.
My relationship with college now is I see it as a job. Basically, I have to try to do my best and most times I find that I’m not able to, even if I try.
Back then I attributed my learning problems to my home life but I’m going to get evaluated for ADHD and maybe try to get on some medications to make me more attentive.
I hyperfocus a lot and it sucks. It feels like I’m never hyper-focusing on the right thing. Whenever I try to sit down to study, I end up going down a rabbit hole of one thing or another.
I’ll be writing things down, writing things down, and then I’m on Amazon, or I’m on Facebook, or I suddenly lose attention and I’m like, I should really look back up.
Suddenly, it’s been like, five minutes and I’ve lost, like, a tenth of the lecture.
I don’t know if it’s normal or if it’s the same as everybody else, but it just seems like everybody else sort of does better than I do.
Maybe that’s just, you know, grass is greener on the other side.
— Interview by Victoria Franco
‘I worked my ass off’
Lindsey Potts, 31, is a Ph.D student from Riverside. She is attending Columbia University pursuing her degree in Latinx Studies.
The community college experience was pretty awesome. I was an English major because I didn’t know other classes existed besides English or math. I started taking other classes like poli-sci and sociology.
Then I transferred to the University of Washington. There, I was like, what is happening? Why are there no people of color in my classroom? Why are we reading Dickens? I had so many questions because going into university was so different than my more integrated community college experience.
What was hardest for me was coming from Southern California and then being in a space like Seattle and not seeing diversity around me. It was really hard for me to understand, as an 18 year old girl, even though I could be a white-passing woman and be fine. It felt like I was in a different world. I dropped out. I moved to Mexico, where I went to school for a bit. Then I went to Ecuador, and I went to school there for a bit.
I ended up back in Riverside. I started working at Olive Garden for two years. I became friends with these old ‘back of the house’ Mexican dudes. We would talk about literature from Mexico. It was fun as hell.
Then looking at friends who were beginning to point toward a career and being like, I should be like that. I wasn’t going anywhere.
I ended up at UC Riverside, which is one of the most diverse campuses in the nation, so it really helps with imposter syndrome – to not feel like I was in a different world. But then I went to Georgetown to get my master’s and had it all over again. As a master’s student, as part of my funding package, I had to teach undergraduates. It was wild to be in a classroom where students would tell me, ‘Oh, my father owns the Ritz Carlton in the Bahamas.’ When they come from that sort of wealth — that I never understood — it makes them very confident in the classroom. So it felt like I shouldn’t be teaching them and they should be teaching me even though I was super-qualified.
What I was doing was probably the most toxic but also the textbook way of dealing with imposter syndrome: I worked my ass off.
I was studying 12 hours a day. It was crazy. I worked way too hard compared to other students. That was how I dealt with it by trying to prove, constantly, that I deserved to be there.
— Interview by Naomi Harris
‘I want to do more stuff than minimum-wage jobs.’
Jennifer Shaw, 35, is a college student at Riverside City College. She is majoring in theater and film.
I started community college back in 2004. I went just before I came out and it was nothing like high school. You’re on your own. You’re responsible for everything.
I went to college originally for automotive work for about three years. Then I dropped out. I got more into special effects makeup. I dropped that job. Then I got a new job. Then I joined the army — that was my breaking point. I had come out as transgender back in 2009. That journey is a bit more interesting because all my struggles with healthcare and the bureaucracy of it. One counselor said, ‘I can’t help you. I can’t help you with your gender dysphoria because your insurance doesn’t cover it.’ So okay, ‘F- you.’ I found hormones overseas.
One of my trans sisters told me there is a health clinic in Hillcrest in San Diego for free homegrown treatment. I did that. Then I went to college in 2017 as transgender, I was a little bit nervous because I wasn’t like fully self-confident. Changing my name on all my college documents, it was a pain in the butt. I got a court order that said you have to change my name on my documentation — like my social security, my licenses, my birth certificate and even my high school records. That was very smooth. I went to the hall of records to change my name on all my high school records from my dead name to my new name and they’re changing it for me, no problem. But college was tricky.
I was going to college for one semester in 2017 and worked for Disneyland for almost two years. I got all my surgeries done with Disney. My dreams do come true working with Disney, surprisingly. The healthcare was amazing. They covered A to Z for transgender care – I was amazed. I finally went back to school and now I’ve been in college for almost two years now. I kept telling myself, life is too short and I want to do more stuff than minimum wage jobs.
I went back to Riverside City College because I like the community and there are some teachers who are really passionate. But sometimes it is hit or miss on the staff because of lack of training. I think teachers should take mandatory training because every generation is more out on their sexuality and their gender identity. There will be more students and teachers should be aware of what they’re saying and what they’re doing. Sometimes, people will say they’re more progressive or equitable but their body language is saying something else to me.
I feel like I got a washed down experience. I paid so much for my classes and they got washed down because the teacher is transphobic or the students are transphobic around me and the teacher won’t fix it.
— Interview by Naomi Harris
‘It was a very hard journey.’
Leon Le, 19, is a college student at Riverside City College. They are majoring in film.
In high school, I was closeted from my family. I kept looking at college transgender insurance policies. Instead of trying to look for a college that would help me out with my major, I ended up pushing that aside and tried to look for a college or university that would help me more with my transition journey.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t in control of coming out to my family. I was outed. My family knows that I’m transgender and thankfully they’re all for helping me transition with their insurance plans. So now I can actually focus on working on my career stuff. Around spring semester of my junior year in high school, that’s when COVID hit, and when everyone switched to online learning. From that semester on to my senior year of high school, that’s when my dad and my older sister were questioning me like ‘All right, you’re almost out of high school. Let’s talk about your college plan.’
It was a very hard journey for me to finally be able to be as headstrong as I am right now. My dad and I are very combative and will do anything to fight for our position. Right now I’m majoring in film. And already with that pressure I have from my dad’s side specifically, I felt pressure to major in something like that will contribute something to society – select something science-related or law-related. I was still hesitant on pursuing something art-related.
I’ve always had a passion for drawing. My dad thought something like architecture. I didn’t tell him I wanted more of a creative outlet. He’d give me a lecture like, ‘Oh, you’re not gonna make enough money. You need to worry about being able to maintain your bills.’ My dad was born in Vietnam. He was living there right before communism took over. His family was pretty high up in government. He fled Vietnam and moved to America. He doesn’t talk about it. That’s how I guess he formed a need to put stability first in his life. I’m pretty sure it scared him.
— Interview by Naomi Harris
‘This is all busy work’
Consuelo Hernandez, 18, found their passion in writing and left Crafton Hills College. They applied to Chaffey College for the upcoming fall semester.
I joked around with dropping out for about a week or so. I was housesitting at the time. It was just complete silence — just me, a dog, and two cats. I would go back, sit down and think about it.
After I was done housesitting, I came back over to my place and opened up my laptop. I’ll give it one shot. If I hate it? I can drop out and get my money back, especially because Crafton had moved online.
I gave it a shot. I was sitting in a philosophy class and looking at the syllabus. I checked out the syllabus for another class I was going to take. This is all busy work. There are some real assignments in here but from what I can see I am going to be wasting my time and my money. I don’t see any point in doing that. It was very anticlimactic. It was me logging onto the website and it asked, do you want to add or drop classes? I dropped all of them.
Last semester, I was taking four classes – three in-person and one on Canvas. I had to wake up fairly early, which is not something I like or am used to. I’d wake up and get to class. Afterwards, I’d head to this coffee shop and hang out there for a while and work on some assignments, maybe not. Then I’d have to go to work after, typically I was on the closing shift. I’d work until 9:30-ish and then after that, usually it was hard to concentrate on work when I got home.
You end up just exhausted from working all day. Your mind doesn’t get a break. You’re in this constant cycle of always being on the move, always being on the go.
The school system is rigid. We are not designed as an educational society to take breaks and that is detrimental to anybody, let alone someone with mental health issues. On the other hand, there is pressure from my parents to get a college education – to get a bachelor’s degree that I’ll never end up using. I don’t even care to go into a field that requires a college degree. Community college is less expensive than regular college, and from what I hear it is less taxing. I was willing to give it a shot. It is definitely less expensive, which I’m grateful I went – but at the same time it was not for me.
I have about three different poetry collections and I have one I plan on making into a book. Last I checked, it’s about 35 to 40 poems right now. I called it Water Damage. I spilled some water on the notebook so it was not too deep, but kind of funny, I think.
— Interview by Naomi Harris
‘I was trying to be like Superwoman’
Rachel Frances, 23, is a transfer student at Cal Poly Pomona. She is majoring in psychology.
When I was in high school, applying for colleges was really difficult because during that time, I was actually sick. I just came out of the hospital and I was trying to figure out how I could apply for colleges in such a short amount of time. I missed so much school and I missed all the lectures and I think they also had some people from different schools teaching us how to do it, and I just didn’t learn how to do it.
So instead, I just found a way of going into community college. It was so much easier. I’m glad I went to community college because I got the Promise grant where I got my tuition paid and we’re basically not in any debt yet. so I’m really glad that I went down that route.
But at first I was really upset. I was working two jobs and with full time school and it was not working. I was trying to be like Superwoman and trying to impress, – trying to show my dad or my family that I can do all these things.
I wasn’t really talking to my academic counselors. I wasn’t really participating in club activities. I wasn’t talking to my professors during office hours and asking for help. I was kind of just doing everything on my own and just showing up to the class. But really, I couldn’t and it was bringing me down. I was just putting pressure on myself. I’m trying to keep up the expectation for others, trying to show up for class and for these group projects.
Some of my friends are in university. They got their bachelor’s, some of them got their master’s already. And I’m barely, you know, getting into university and getting my bachelor’s.
I just realized that comparing myself to others and just trying to go fast wasn’t helping me. It wasn’t productive either. How was that going to do anything? How would it help me move forward? So I started focusing on myself. I stopped comparing myself to others and just doing what I got to do.
— Interview by Naomi Harris
Reporting made possible with support from College Futures Foundation.