Inviting Community College Students to See Themselves as University...

Diversity and Equity

Inviting Community College Students to See Themselves as University Researchers

How a research program inspires community college students to consider transferring to earn bachelor's degrees.

By Rebecca Koenig     Feb 15, 2024

Inviting Community College Students to See Themselves as University Researchers
Photo courtesy of UCLA

When Alicia Garcia first enrolled at College of the Desert, she felt lost. Her first semester grades at the California community college were not good, she says, and she didn’t know much about financial aid or academic advising.

But when one of her professors announced an opportunity for students to participate in a research internship to study young people’s well-being and civic engagement in the Coachella Valley, her interest was piqued. She signed up.

“Me being a first-generation student, I've never had the resources to be able to step into education. I didn't know who to talk to, where to go, and all that good stuff,” she says. “But when I see this opportunity to be able to make a change in my community, I was all for it.”

Over the past year, the Chicano Studies Research Center at the University of California, Los Angeles, has built partnerships with California community colleges to engage dozens of students in research surveying young people in the communities where the two-year colleges are based. Students who sign up to administer surveys (sometimes in Spanish or in indigenous languages like Mixtec) receive a stipend, earn college credit — and get a taste of what it’s like to produce scholarship in collaboration with faculty and with the backing of a top university.

For Garcia, the experience not only got her more engaged at her community college, but also prompted her to consider pursuing additional higher education, too.

As she worked on the project with her professor, Andrew Aleman, he started asking her about whether she had plans to transfer to seek a bachelor’s degree, Garcia recalls. She hadn’t thought much about it, she said. When she threw out the names of a few institutions, the professor encouraged her to think bigger and to consider applying to schools in the University of California system.

“I got a little vulnerable. I was like, ‘I really don’t think that I can do it. If we’re being honest, I have a lot of self-doubt. It’s really hard. What if I’m not good enough? What if I don’t get in?’ Just what ifs,’” she remembers.

The professor made a counterargument: “‘What if you do get in? What if you do pass the classes?’ He was like, ‘Not only that, but you already have your foot in the water. What is there to be so scared of?’”

Boosting community college transfer rates is a perennial challenge in higher education. A new data analysis shows that only about a third of students starting in community colleges transfer to four-year schools, and only 48 percent of those who transfer earn a bachelor’s degree within six years of starting higher ed. That means only 16 percent of community college students transfer and graduate from a four-year college within six years, and the rate is even lower for students who are low-income (11 percent), Black (9 percent) and Hispanic (13 percent).

For Garcia, exposure to a university research program and her professor’s vote of confidence were key motivators toward transferring.

“He was just uplifting me,” Garcia says. “That’s something that I’ve never had. That’s something I’ve never experienced. I’ve never been told that I can do it. I’ve never been told, ‘You got this. Good job, I’m proud of you.’ That’s something I got from him all the time.”

Community Experts

Tapping students at community colleges to design and carry out social science research has helped to build the infrastructure needed to collect data in regions of California that tend not to be studied as thoroughly as, say, Los Angeles or the Bay Area, according to Eder Gaona-Macedo, the former senior officer of community engaged research at the Chicano Studies Research Center.

And because this particular research effort, called the Thriving Youth Study, targets people ages 18 to 34 years old, it makes sense to recruit students to help run it who can draw on their own knowledge of their neighborhoods and peers.

“They know where young people hang out,” Gaona-Macedo says. “That’s super instrumental in our research quest.”

The study looks at social conditions shaping education and employment for youth across California, focusing on those whose families work in agricultural and other low-wage industries. The input of community college students and faculty helps to ensure the survey results will be useful locally, Gaona-Macedo adds, not just to academics at UCLA.

“It allows us to really have community buy-in,” he says.

Some of these community college students may join the next generation of researchers at California universities, Gaona-Macedo says, if the experience inspires them to transfer to larger institutions and earn advanced degrees.

“We want to get to the point where hopefully they start seeing the UC as an option,” he says. “We don't provide, like, a ‘how to,’ but hopefully working with us increases their curiosity.”

So far, three of the student participants have successfully transferred from their community colleges to UCLA, where they’ve continued to work on the research project, Gaona-Macedo says.

One of those students is Monserrat Ruiz. She first got involved as a student at Oxnard College by participating in research ethics training. Then she helped develop survey questions designed to resonate with people of her generation, and helped pass out survey invitations at community clinics and events. Next, she learned how to administer in-depth, one-on-one interviews with participants.

She says the research program helped her make friends with fellow students and also stretched her courage and social skills.

“It got me out of my shell,” Ruiz says. “The more I got used to it, the more I liked it.”

Ruiz, who had enrolled at Oxnard College after high school because of its free tuition program, says that transferring to UCLA has been a positive experience so far. The academic workload feels more rigorous, she says, but still manageable. She’s also noticed that it feels harder to get access to resources like counseling and help at the writing center at the large university than it was at her community college.

Ruiz has continued to work on the research project, transcribing and coding interviews for nine or 10 hours a week. She hopes to eventually earn a master’s degree and work at a nonprofit in her community. The experience “helped me want to continue with community engagement,” she says. “It was refreshing to see all the perspectives in my community — in my county — that I never knew.”

Meanwhile, Garcia is making plans to apply this fall to transfer to seek a bachelor’s degree. She says her professor continues to “bug” her about it — that is, to check in on her progress.

“I didn't even know what a UC or a USC was” before starting the internship, Garcia says. “Now I have great goals for myself, I have plans — and not only for myself, but for my community, for the people around me.”

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