Why Community Colleges Work

Cathy Kemper-Pelle

I know from first-hand experience the transformative power of community colleges. As a higher education institution, they are a center of advanced learning and the development of new ways to view the world. At the same time, the community college environment is less intimidating than a university. Class sizes are smaller, and there is a strong commitment to connecting students to academic, social, and personal support systems that enhance their ability to focus on their studies and be successful.

I have a very long history with community colleges, starting with receiving my A.A.S. in general studies two years after high school graduation. I have been a parent of community college students, as well as part-time and full-time faculty, teaching general and environmental biology for over 25 years. The latter part of my career has focused on community college leadership, serving as a dean, vice-president, and now president. Why am I so committed to community colleges?

Students and the workplace have changed considerably since I attended community college. However, I believe there is one factor that has remained constant – personal connection. My own success in completing my associate degree was due to the faculty and staff who connected with me, saw my potential, and would not let me fail. When I missed eight weeks of classes my sophomore year due to illness, the dean brought my instructors together to create a plan that would ensure I made up my work and graduated on time. The dean and my instructors personally encouraged me not to give up and helped me see what was possible. My experience was not unique.

I saw this same process unfold when my daughter was a sophomore and became ill. When my son stumbled academically, I observed as community college faculty helped him see his potential and get serious about his education, a message he didn’t want to hear again from mom. Both were able to successfully complete their bachelor’s degrees with no debt while many of their friends attended universities for four years and graduated with debt burdens so great they were unable to purchase a home as working adults.

In my 39 years in higher education, I am always inspired by our students who start with the odds stacked against them, yet they persevere and become successful. Every day I meet students who have amazing stories: the high school dropout who summoned the courage to attend one class at a community college, found his passion for earth science, and went on to earn a Ph.D. in planetary science; or the young woman who was her father’s caregiver as his life was ending, faced at age 19 with filing insurance claims, closing his business, managing his home, and still completing her degree successfully and entering a nursing program. These students, and thousands of others, have overcome obstacles most of us can barely imagine, to successfully complete an RCC credential and move into the workplace or into baccalaureate programs at universities.

How does this happen? It is the direct result of our open admissions philosophy and commitment to providing personalized quality educational experiences that result in student success. We make a personal connection with them to understand their academic, social and individual needs. Instead of expecting students to be college-ready when they step on an RCC campus, we are student-ready. We are partners with our students in preparing them for a bright future. RCC is the pathway to a successful life, right here in Southern Oregon.

Cathy Kemper-Pelle, Ed.D.
Rogue Community College