Driving across town with the heater of her new car insulating her from the fierce Oklahoma winter at the end of 2016, Amy Radford-Nelson spied a man walking along the railroad tracks.
Radford-Nelson, a Redlands Community College student in El Reno, Okla., recalled her own bout of homelessness seven years before when she was pregnant with her second child and a move to Santa Fe hadn’t worked out. Recalling that rocky stretch made her decide to do something to help.
Radford-Nelson spent the next nine months doing research, filing paperwork, negotiating a lease and gathering community support, and last September the Rock Island Community Kitchen opened its doors.
“The way I thought about it, if I wait to do this until I get into graduate school, it’s not going to happen. I’m going to be too busy,” says Radford-Nelson, 35. The non-profit soup kitchen, staffed with college honor society volunteers, now serves 700 meals a month.
A mother of three, a premedical student and Goldwater Scholar, Radford-Nelson has been named to the All-USA Community and Junior College Academic First Team, USA TODAY’s recognition program for outstanding two-year college students.
She and 19 others received trophies and $2,500 cash awards Sunday night at the American Association of Community Colleges convention in Minneapolis. Forty more students have been named to the Second and Third Teams.
The First Team members were selected from 1,528 students seeking associate’s degrees. The judging process was administered by Phi Theta Kappa, the honor society for two-year colleges. The eight men and 12 women carry a combined grade-point average of 3.94 in fields ranging from engineering to educational psychology.
They range in age from 16-year-old Benjamin Eidelson, a high school senior who also is earning two associate’s degrees from Santa Barbara (Calif.) City College in May, to single mother Lauree Fletcher, 46, who has served on the student council with two of her six children at Whatcom Community College in Bellingham, Wash.
Whether community college represents a second chance, an early start or low-cost entry into higher education, many First Team members credit them with broadening their outlook. Radford-Nelson, for instance, enrolled at Redlands Community College intending to become a nurse.
“I wanted to go into nursing because I knew I could do it,” she says. With the encouragement of the faculty, she now has set her sights on master’s and medical degrees and a career in research. First Team members represent the diversity found at community colleges:
* Urouj Shah, 22, emigrated from Pakistan to the Chicago suburbs in 2000 and soon found her days narrowed to 16-hour shifts making change at a gas station, trying to save up for college.
After giving lost drivers directions to Oakton Community College for nine months, she walked nearly two miles to campus herself one day to find out what a community college was. At first she was shocked by professors who encouraged students to challenge their ideas, but Shah found her voice at Oakton and blossomed into an award-winning writer.
“Community college transforms you into this person you didn’t think you could be,” she says.
* Micah Crowsey was 14 when he and his family moved to the Charlottesville area so he could enroll at Piedmont Virginia Community College. Having been home-schooled in Mississippi, he sought community college in general and PVCC in particular because of the small class size and personal attention.
“I adapted to it fairly easily,” says Micah, 17, a classical pianist who is helping design a framework for chemistry instruction at Virginia community colleges. “The main problem was that I couldn’t drive, so my mom had to take me to classes all the time.”
* A single mother of six in Bellingham, Wash., Lauree Fletcher entered a Whatcom Community College program for displaced homemakers after her oldest daughter started taking courses there while in high school. “For me it was a matter of survival,” Fletcher says. “Looking for jobs and not having a college degree in this area, there was nothing.”
Fletcher has been able to develop her own projects — such as leading elementary school classes to self-publish their stories — while expanding her career goals, from teaching paraprofessional to educational reformer. “It has just been an excellent experience for me.”
* After almost two years on the streets as a gang member, Joseph Luchenta of Phoenix returned to high school at 19 at a charter school connected to a community college. Encouraged by instructors to reach beyond a high school diploma, he had his gang tattoos removed and earned a scholarship that covered his tuition at Mesa Community College. Luchenta, 23, a straight-A student who volunteers with the Phoenix Youth at Risk mentor program, has found that community college is about more than gaining work skills: “You can get a complete education.”
* An immigrant from Ireland and England who moved to Hickory, N.C., in high school, Danielle Shacklady was weighing acceptances to North Carolina State and Appalachian State when her dad got laid off. “I reluctantly went into Catawba Valley Community College, thinking I’d transfer after one semester to a four-year school,” she says. Two years later, she is CVCC’s student government president, earning associate’s degrees in chemistry and psychology in May and preparing to do chemistry research at the University of Minnesota through a National Science Foundation program. “No one can argue you’re not going to learn the material in a class of 15 as opposed to a class of 100, where the teacher knows you only by number, not by name,” she says.
* Farrah Farzaneh was sent to London as a child during Iran’s Islamic Revolution by her father, a lawyer and professor. She moved to California in 1985 to be with other family members, and Farzaneh was able to get her mother and brother out of Iran after her father was executed in 1995. She enrolled in Chaffey College to gain business skills in 1999 and credits community college with helping her find her roots.
“A philosophy professor opened up my heart to religion again,” says Farzaneh, who worked with a Baptist friend to organize Chaffey College’s first interfaith forum in February. “The feeling I’ve found is that it wasn’t Islam that killed my father; it was the interpretation of the fundamentalists that did that.”
* Mindaugas Maciulis came to Hanover (Pa.) High as an exchange student from Lithuania in 2000 and wanted to stay in the USA for college. “I had no idea about community colleges. But in looking for a four-year school, the host family I was staying with said community colleges are as good as four-year schools and usually cheaper.”
Maciulis, 21, was surprised by the friendly environment and extracurricular activities at Harrisburg Area Community College that helped him develop communication and leadership skills. “No matter what I do, I can use the skills I’ve gained at community college,” says Maciulis, who was named HACC’s student senator of the year.
* George Kutnerian started taking courses at Fresno City College as a high school junior not knowing what to expect. “What you hear about community colleges is that they’re high schools with ashtrays,” says Kutnerian, 20.
What he found was a campus of more than 20,000 students with lots of leadership opportunities, an honors program, and a truly diverse student body.
“It just expanded my horizons and made me more open-minded about how other people perceive things,” says Kutnerian, who attended a small, private high school. “I came to appreciate people for who they were and where they came from.”
Kutnerian went on to lead campus efforts to help pass a $161 million community college district bond measure last year. Now student president, he also is on the committee overseeing how the bond money will be spent.
As a system that lets people reinvent themselves, community colleges benefit a wide spectrum of people, he says. And the diversity at Fresno City College added depth to his own education.
“Going to community college really exposed me to what the community is like.”