To say that 22-year-old Edith Rodriguez’ life is a 180 turn is an understatement.
“I remember the last time I was incarcerated, the judge told me that you know what, you’ve been coming in here, in an out, and this is your last time. Next time you’ll have longer-term consequences,” recalls the Santa Barbara, California resident, who says she comes from a family of hard-working, solid Mexican parents, but just fell in with the wrong crowd.
As she was pondering the judge’s words, Rodriguez says she also looked at her dad’s life, and the fact that a 5th grade education had limited his work prospects. “My dad was always working so many jobs at time, I never saw him,” Rodriguez recalls. “I knew I had to go to college, but I didn’t have a clue,” she adds.
Fast forward a few years. Rodriguez will soon transfer from Santa Barbara City College (SBCC) to a four-year institution to study electrical engineering. “I realized I loved math and science,” says Rodriguez. The aspiring engineer says this never would have happened if it weren’t for her “angel,” Adolfo Corral, the program coordinator of Running Start at Santa Barbara City College, a community college which was named co-winner of the Aspen Institute’s 2013 Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence.
“Corral came into our high school to make a presentation about the program, and when I said I was interested, he made sure that I follow [sic] every single step and apply for financial aid, which I didn’t know anything about,” says Rodriguez. Rodriguez also participated in the Running Start summer program, to help her catch up on her Math and English classes so she would be ready to perform academically at the community college. Moreover, once she was at SBCC, she was given extensive resources including tutoring and mentoring.
Rodriguez says she never would have gone to community college, nor known she was good in math and science, if she had not had someone like Corral guiding her consistently through these past four years. More soberly, she says there are many Latino students out there like her.
“In my neighborhood, the people I grew up with are not in college right now because they don’t know anything about it,” says Rodriguez. “Most of us need to be motivated, and we don’t know about these opportunities. These programs help us.”
Rodriguez was able to give her community college the ultimate thank you – she got to introduce Dr. Jill Biden in the ceremony awarding SBCC with the Aspen Institute’s prize. The other winner is Walla Walla Community College in Washington state.
SBCC was awarded for the fact that its program has tangible results. Almost half (48 percent) of its Hispanic students – which make up 30 percent of its student body – graduate on time, compared to only 35 percent nationally. In fact, 64 percent of its first-time full-time students transfer or graduate within three years, compared to 40 percent nationally. Moreover, 5 years after SBCC students complete their two-year degree, they are earning about $43,000 a year, a comparable wage to workers in the Santa Barbara area.
At Walla Walla, 54 percent of its first-time full-time students graduate on time compared to 40 percent nationally, and 48 percent of underrepresented minorities graduate on time compared to 34 percent nationally.
Nearly half of the nation’s college students attend community colleges. The Aspen Institute stated these two institutions are raising the bar to ensure these students are graduating with the skills to enter the workforce.
Rodriguez says she ultimately wants to work as an engineer at NASA, a far cry from juvenile court. “My parents don’t understand much about how the college things works, but they are so proud, and my younger sister is going to college because of me.”