On 17 March 2000, I became only the fourth African-American woman to earn a doctorate in chemistry from Ohio State University in Columbus. I believe I was able to accomplish this in large part because of the early training I received at Highland Park Community College (HPCC).
After graduating from Henry Ford High School in Detroit, Michigan, where my grades were not exactly stellar, I enrolled at HPCC located in Highland Park, Michigan. Due to my weak secondary education, I assumed I could not obtain a full scholarship to attend a 4-year institution, so I didn't even apply. Moreover, I lacked confidence in my abilities and had very low self-esteem. All that changed during my tenure at HPCC. There, I was able to build a strong academic foundation and enhance my confidence in my own abilities.
Why attend community college?
There are several advantages to attending community colleges. Financially, attending HPCC worked out well for me. My mother worked at HPCC, and so I was able to take advantage of the tuition assistance program. Also, I was able to live at home with my parents and did not have to worry about my living or travel expenses. Finally, the class schedules were very flexible. As a result, I was able to work part time in the HPCC Media Center and earn additional funds for my education.
But it wasn't just the practical aspects that helped. The HPCC staff, faculty, and student body are predominately African-American. This was significant for my growth because the environment was very supportive. I needed to see successful minorities in the academic arena. Being in such a supportive environment, I saw my grades improve significantly, and I earned a 3.8 cumulative GPA that put me in a much better place when it came to applying for scholarships and fellowships at a 4-year institution. I also developed an interest in science and decided to earn a bachelor's degree in chemistry.
Where should you transfer?
Unfortunately, I initially transferred to an institution that I did not find to provide a very supportive environment. I decided to attend this 4-year university based on a recommendation from an instructor at HPCC. But if I had conducted my own research, I would have chosen to go elsewhere. Looking back on that time period, there are several fundamental issues that I would now consider in my decision making process.
Before making any decision about transferring to a 4-year institution, then, you should conduct some research on your own. I would encourage you to visit the institutions you're thinking about attending and the departments that interest you. Find out about your scholarships and fellowship opportunities within that institution. Ask about bridging programs between the institution and your community college. And talk with the faculty, staff, and students--particularly students who also came from your community college. In short, try to determine whether or not you'll find the overall environment supportive as you continue your studies. But you should also consider geographic location when making your decision: Relocating can be expensive, and for a year or two at least, you're likely to be traveling back home during breaks.
I later transferred to Wayne State University (WSU) in downtown Detroit. I don't recall if HPCC had a formal "bridging" program with WSU. However, it was common for HPCC graduates to transfer to WSU after completing their associate degrees. Transferring to WSU was the best decision for me. First, WSU has a well-respected chemistry department with a faculty that conducts cutting-edge research in a number of areas. In addition, WSU offered a tremendously supportive environment. For example, a student affiliate chapter of the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers (www.nobcche.org, NOBCChE) was (and still is!) active on campus. Thus, there were students just like me attending WSU! Although, I did not know about this organization before transferring to WSU, it served as a supportive vehicle for me during my undergraduate years. And, although I didn't think about it at the time, my ongoing affiliation with NOBCChE has allowed me to develop key professional and networking relationships that have been of tremendous value to me over the course of my career. In addition, the African-American faculty and staff in the department served as role models and/or mentors for me.
WSU also had a variety of minority science undergraduate initiatives--such as the MARC (Minority Access to Careers) fellowship, which is administered by the National Institutes of Health. I was a MARC fellow from 1992 to 1994, and the experience was invaluable. One of the goals of MARC is to increase the numbers of minorities in various fields of science. Not only did I gain valuable research experience through this undergraduate program, I received many other benefits, including full tuition, monthly stipend checks, and additional peers/mentors. Moreover, my association with the MARC program as an undergraduate encouraged me to earn a graduate degree in science. Finally, due to the location of WSU, I was able to continue living at home with my family. As a result of these many support systems and training, I earned a B.A. in chemistry (cum laude) in May 1994.
Community colleges now play a very significant role in the education of minority students. Statistics provided by the American Association of Community Colleges (www.aacc.nche.edu) indicate that a significant number of minority students enroll in community colleges. I believe my early training at HPCC is the primary reason I was successful academically. But remember, if you're in a community college and thinking about transferring to a 4-year institution, you must conduct your own research before selecting a school--and spend some time building your own strong foundation.