Last week, we looked at inequities in higher education, especially as they apply to first-generation students. Opportunity involves access, of course, so it’s a big deal when a nontraditional student gains admission to an elite university; however, as we learned in Afred Lubrano’s Philadelphia Inquirer April 22 piece, money is only one of the things that most nontraditional students lack compared to students from families who know firsthand about college.

Insaaf Muhamed’s story reveals

  1. how some first-gen students succeed on the unlevel playing field of higher education
  2. how community college plays a key role in bridging the gap of needs that they experience.

As with many people (myself included), Insaaf Muhamed’s path to a college degree from University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill began at community college. And CC also figured into the beginning of her post-degree career.

At Northern Virginia Community College, she found flexibility that enabled her to balance work and classes, graduating with her AA degree in two years.

But NVCC provided more than mere convenience, as she explains in the Forbes article, “The class sizes at NVCC were small, which made it easier to form meaningful relationships with both students and professors.”

Go back to the Lubrano article and note how important certain connections and relationships can be to a college student. In so many lives, they prove to be turning points that make all the difference in the world. Community colleges were designed to provide that kind of atmosphere in which students and teachers are more likely to actually interact, and many CC professors reach out to students because they grasp the importance of such mentoring for nontraditional students. Small class size fosters that sort of thing.

In her sophomore year, one of Insaaf Muhamed’s professors encouraged her to “aim high and apply” for transfer to elite universities. That process taught her that some such schools are more open to CC grads than others. “There is a stigma surrounding community college and it is frequently reinforced by selective institutions who are unwilling to partner with community colleges. That’s a missed opportunity. Research shows that community college students who transfer to selective universities actually graduate at the same rates as those who entered the university right out of higher school—and in some cases, at higher rates than their peers.” 960x0

UNC accepted her CC credits and welcomed her with a substantial financial aid package. Between the money she saved by studying for two years at a CC and the UNC package that resulted from her academic achievement at NVCC, she was not burdened with impossible debt, “While the national average student loan debt for the class of 2017 is $28,650, I completed my undergraduate education in four years with only $7,000 in debt—some of which I paid down while I was in college.”

Job after college? Mohamed works as a Research and Policy Associate for the College Promise Campaign, “a national nonprofit that builds broad public support for accessible, affordable, quality College Promise programs that enable hard-working students to complete a college degree or certificate, starting in America’s community colleges.”

This impressive young woman has a career that gives her meaning and purpose. Her work ensures that others can have the same opportunity. She’s felt the stigma of community college, thrived in spite of it, and works to counter it. “At the end of the day, I wouldn’t trade my community college experience for anything.”

Barriers of all sorts make success difficult for first-generation students. Faculty can help students circumvent some of them, and certain elite institutions can take it upon themselves to dismantle barriers grounded in ignorance. Well done to faculty and staff at UNC and at NVCC, and to Insaaf Mohamed!


Ned Bachus is the author of Open Admissions: What Teaching at Community College Taught Me About Learning (Wild River Books, 2017) and of the “Turning Points” weekly blog on City of Brotherly Love (Fleur-de-Lis Books), his book of stories, was awarded the 2013 IPPY Gold Medal for Literary Fiction. Bachus’s article, “Learning From Turning Points in Our Teaching Lives,” will be featured in the May issue of NEA Higher Education Advocate, which reaches over 150,000 college faculty in the U.S.