For the longest time, I was ashamed to tell people that I spent my first year after high school at a community college.
Growing up in America, I feel like there’s a stigma that comes with going to a community college.
“Oh you weren’t smart enough to get into real college?”
“Good luck finding a job once they find out you went to a community college.”
And while not everyone mentions these statements all the time, it does pop up during our high school years.
It popped up, and still kept popping up, during and after I went to college.
My friend relayed this story to me.
He was in a group of premed students from a community college that went to a Columbia University medical school open house.
Someone on the admissions board mentioned they wouldn’t consider accepting any kids who went to community college because “the education isn’t good enough.”
The admissions person didn’t realize people from the community college were in the audience.
The professor who chaperoned the group stood up and shouted back, “I’ll have you know, the science curriculum I teach these kids at community college is the exact same curriculum that I taught at Yale. Heck, even the textbooks are the same!”
The admissions person was stubborn and stood their ground.
They repeated that they still would not accept kids who went to community college.
The professor got up and told his premed group to leave rather than sit there and listen to the person’s bias.
And while I understand there are hundreds of different community colleges across America, each with their own difficulty of curriculum, to stereotype them all as “not good enough” is one of the stigmas I’ve had to overcome.
On a side note, the education I received at community college was top-notch and when I transferred to a regular 4 year college, I found that I was able to outcompete the students who had been there the whole time.
This is just one reason why we shouldn’t poo-poo someone’s education just because of preconceived notions.
Who knows, maybe some things have changed since the stereotypes were started?
Before we begin, I wanted to clarify my storyline.
When we first came to America, we settled in one ghetto before quickly moving to a ghetto closer to New York City.
My parents didn’t speak much English, nor did they have formal education.
They each worked multiple menial jobs, often getting paid lower than minimum wage.
There were times I didn’t see them for days because they were working so much, all the while our grandmother raised us.
Within a few short years, they saved up enough money to open a small restaurant in this very same ghetto.
Business wasn’t good because the neighborhood scared away a lot of customers.
But the money from the business allowed us to move out of the ghetto and into an upper-middle class to upper-class suburb around New York City.
Like our neighborhood often had T.V. and movie stars walking around town sort of wealthy.
My parents changed the location of the business to this new neighborhood and the rest is history.
But even though our outward situations have changed, I was still plagued by inward feelings of inferiority left over from the ghetto.
All those years growing up as an Asian immigrant surrounded by African-Americans and Hispanic immigrants who viewed us as less than dirt because we were different, even while they were poorer than we were, kind of rubbed off on me.
I didn’t want to admit it, but there it is.
I let how they viewed me affected how I viewed me. This should NEVER be the case.
Which is why I want to say to the next Asian immigrant kid working his out of the dark and into the light, just keep working on it.
Eventually you’ll reach a place that you created for yourself, where you will become a light that will shine onto others.
A force to be reckon with, a power of positivity and good energy. One that builds others up, without breaking anyone down.
When it came time to look at colleges, I looked at Ivy League schools and other prestigious universities but didn’t apply out of fear of rejection.
I thought, “Maybe I’m not good enough to go to a fancy four year university?”
It was all remnants of the negativity and deprecating beliefs and values left over from them.
I didn’t want to apply, only to not get in to any of them and realize the truth that maybe I wasn’t good enough. Maybe I was less than dirt?
I shied away and took the easy path where I knew I had a 100% acceptance rate.
I went to a local community college then transferred to a local state college.
I didn’t have to exert much effort to get into either of them.
Now that you have a clearer image of my storyline, let’s go deeper.
What Did I do?
I went to state community college for 1 year. Tuition was $2,200/semester.
Transferred via the state internal transfer to a 4-year state college, guaranteeing a 100% transfer rate, to finish the remaining 3 years. Tuition was $4,200/semester.
My dad paid the semester tuition in monthly installments to break it into more manageable chunks.
I commuted by car from home to both colleges.
I packed food from home so I didn’t have to spend a lot of money eating on campus.
Why Did I Do All Of This?
One part was that I had a severe inferiority complex that I tried to cover up as arrogance.
I grew up around destitution and “poorness,” such as: gangs just chilling on street corners, cops roving the streets, and drugs and crime were an everyday occurrence.
And as mentioned earlier, we were constant targets for derogatory racial slurs because we were the different family in the hood.
One outcome of this is that it gave us thicker skin.
So now when other people make racial slurs at me, I just brush it off because I’m coming from a place of deeper self-security.
But at the time of my more insecure teenage self, I had self-reinforced, self-limiting beliefs when it came to most things.
“Aren’t they expensive anyways? The tuition, room & board are like $60,000 a year. It’s best for me to not go. The community college and state schools are much more affordable.”
“My family doesn’t have that much money. Let me just drive to the local college, it’ll be alright.”
I lied to myself that these were the best choices I could make given my life situations.
I was naive and egotistical to think that I was such a brave and smart cookie to go to community college because “it’ll save my family money.”
These helped to reinforce the belief that I wasn’t good enough for “fancy” colleges.
You know, the ones with the old stone buildings with ivy growing on them?
I tried to psyche myself out.
“Your grade-score standing is only 40th out of 240 kids in your grade. You’re not good enough to follow the top kids to private liberal arts colleges.”
I remember our English teacher beaming whenever she helped kids get into bigger state schools and private liberal arts colleges while I was settling for my small local state school.
I Was Lazy
Besides the inferiority complex that manifested as self protection to become my less than best self, I was so blinded by these thoughts that I was too lazy to see if possible (and better?) alternatives were available for the same price.
By the time I applied to colleges, my family’s household income was high enough that the FAFSA, government money for free grants and scholarships for college, barely gave me any money.
Not to blame my ignorance, but I feel like as an immigrant whose parents never went to college, because I didn’t grow up inherently knowing about the American college system like some legacy families, I didn’t know how to navigate the college scholarship and application process.
I also didn’t ask school counselors for help because I was too proud and too afraid at the same time. Not a good combination.
So I went for the easiest route possible: the community college 20 minutes from my house. Then the state college 30 minutes from my house.
I was lucky enough to be around local colleges and not have to drive hours to reach them.
I Didn’t Know Any Better
The oldest excuse in the book.
Because I was self conscious, lazy, and I “didn’t know better,” what I wish I could tell my younger self would be to look into private liberal arts colleges that had huge endowments and checked to see how many scholarships I could get from them based on my grades and merit.
Because my family’s income was high, and because I chose a small community college with barely any endowment and a small state college with a small endowment, they both didn’t have many grants nor scholarships to give me so we paid almost all of it out of pocket.
Toward the end of my college years, I realized that some people were going to private liberal arts colleges and paying less than I was to attend state school, all because they chose colleges with huge endowments and got lots of scholarships.
“Agh! Why didn’t I KNOW THAT!?”
If colleges are still around by the time my kids go to school, and if things haven’t changed much, I hope to learn and show my kids the various ways to get a good college education for an affordable price.
Why Does Any Of This Matter?
Because while I did graduate debt free, going to small state colleges was slightly detrimental to my career prospects (from lack of alumni connections to lack of available career resources).
This being a blog on personal finances, one can look into the opportunity cost of “money saved from graduating debt free” versus “career opportunities lost from lower career prospects.”
For example, I was mentally sad when I found out that my state college didn’t even pop up on any of the Big 4 Consulting Firms job applications portal.
Some of my friends who went to these fancy private liberal arts colleges were getting hired by the Big 4 right out of college, heck some of them were even head-hunted during their junior year! Like how freakin’ crazy is that?!
I understand better now (at least I think I do) to not base my self-worth on something as silly as whether or not my college appears in the radar of big companies.
It’s just I didn’t consider these things because I didn’t learn about it or understood how these systems worked because I “didn’t know any better” nor did my family know any better.
But in the end, I am responsible for my own choices and will not blame anyone else for living less than my best life and becoming my best self.
That’s the whole point of self-awareness. To be able to recognize the areas within yourself that you can work on in order to improve.
Also, I’m not basing success in life on whether or not you can land that sweet corporate job.
Most of my friends who work in the Big 4 consulting firms hate, with a capital H, their jobs and are looking to move to less stressful work environments.
I just thought that if I went to a school with more connections, I would have been able to get a higher paying job out of college.
Because the more income you have, the faster you can reach Financial Independence, right? All things being equal.
The Negatives: What I Missed Out On
Here are some of the fun things I missed out on by making these lazy “sacrifices.”
Living On Campus
Because I commuted to save money and the other reasons mentioned above, I felt like I missed out on a lot of fun on campus.
At the four year college, students would talk about parties or events that happened over the weekend.
And while I understand that I couldn’t be everywhere at once, e.g., at this event over the weekend, AND work, AND study, I couldn’t help but feel if I lived on campus I would’ve been able to attend more events.
So there was some slight FOMO going on there.
Because the students saw each other in classes, in dining halls, and in the dorms, they developed very close bonds with each other.
As a transfer student, I was late to the party.
It took extra time trying to find my niche and develop a friend circle to build camaraderie.
That might be one reason why the commuters all banded together as well…
Not to mention, the kids who lived on campus were the ones who threw parties in their dorms.
So of course you just had to be friends with them to get invited to have fun.
Less Commuting, More Enjoying
Because the kids on campus were able to just walk class, they enjoyed more free time.
A part of me didn’t mind the 30 minute drive to and from school to be honest.
To have productive drives, I listened to audio recordings of myself reading the textbook (nerd alert!).
Somehow, I always made it to class on time while the kids who lived on campus tended to be late.
Though they did look like they enjoyed campus life more and could hang out for as long as they wanted without having to drive home.
They could also drink as much as they wanted because they could just walk back to their dorms.
The Pros of These “Sacrifices”
To be honest, when writing all of this out, I realized I didn’t miss out on much…
I was still able to attend most of the parties, just not every party.
It was enough for me to enjoy my college experience.
It’s amazing how perception of our past can change with viewed through the lenses of our older selves.
Good Home-Cooked Meals
At first I thought being at home and commuting to college was a curse.
Only later did I realize it was a gift.
I was able to have good home cooked meals every single day versus the greasy college dining hall food.
I was also able to have dinners with my family.
Met My Girlfriend
We’ve been dating for five years now and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
She’s helped me grow as a person. And because we’re both economics majors, we math the heck out of personal finances.
If I didn’t go to this small state school, who knows how my life would have turned out?
Freedom From Being Debt Free
I wasn’t bogged down with student loans where I needed a job to pay it off right away.
I had money saved up from working in college and was able to travel for months at a time.
This helped broaden my horizons and experience the world in a way that maybe students with tens of thousands of dollars in student debt don’t get to experience because they have to work to make monthly payments.
Can Be Choosy With Jobs
I was also able to be more picky and took time deciding which jobs I wanted to do.
This gave me more time to look around for jobs that I thought I would actually enjoy doing.
I was able to do this because I didn’t have the mounting pressures of student loans to pay back.
If you have a lot of loan payments, you need to get a job to start paying back them otherwise the interest just accrues, right?
If someone offered me a job and I didn’t want to do it, I simply didn’t take it.
Whenever I felt like traveling, I did because I was able to.
It was a nice situation to be in.
It didn’t help me reach FIRE any faster though and I wised up after a few years…
What Would I Do Differently?
If I could go back and do it all again, I would summon the courage to apply to those private colleges with big endowments.
Regardless of the outcome, at least I took the shot and could say I tried, versus never trying at all.
We regret more of the opportunities we don’t take than the ones we do, right?
I would look at schools that have more alumni connections in the field I wanted to go into, in the hopes of reaching out to them one day.
In the end, and this might sound cliché, I realize it’s not where you go so much as what you do with the resources that you have.
Because I went to a small college, even though our funding and resources were small, my professors got to know me really well and helped me get published in Forbes AND Yahoo Finance on two different articles.
Not only that, they helped me get funding for a free trip to present my research in Cancun for a weekend at the Marriott on the beach.
So just look for how you can utilize the resources that you do have, instead of looking for ways to complain about what you don’t have.
My parents didn’t have time to sit around and lament over how poor they were in a new country.
They had mouths to feed.
They used what little resources they had, their strength, and went straight to work on creating the future they wanted for themselves and their family.
Believe in yourself more.
You deserve the best. Act like it.
Sometimes, there are more opportunities out there than at first glance.
You have to dig deeper.
There are both pros and cons to every decision.
If you can find the silver lining, you’re golden 🙂
Ignore the naysayers.
Do the best you can.
Always keep in mind the bigger picture. What is any of this all for?
What does all of this mean to you?
Thanks for reading,
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