SAN FRANCISCO – To hear her describe it, getting through a California community college these days is no easy task. Budget cuts have reduced course lists, with more cuts on the way, leaving students adrift in a system that for many is a last leg up in this recession. In her twenty years as a counselor at City College of San Francisco, Sarah Thompson says times have never been worse.
“It used to be that I gave out nothing but good news,” says Thompson, one of some 120 counselors at CCSF serving a student body that represents one out of every eight San Francisco residents. “Now, there’s not as much good news,” she adds.
According to Thompson, over 1000 classes have already been cut this semester. Recently, a pre-requisite class for the college's highly competitive nursing program, turned away over 900 students. The cuts come as Sacramento considers trimming another $215 million from the 108 community colleges statewide, impacting more than 2 million students.
“We get them all,” says Thompson, from “foreclosure victims and returning Iraq and Afghan vets,” to young men and women seeking a way out of the violence plaguing their neighborhoods. “They’re all trying to overcome obstacles,” she explains, adding that community college gives them the “structure” to be able to do that.
Thompson gives them the support, helping students navigate a system of fluctuating and contradictory course requirements and hidden or shrinking financial aid opportunities. Sometimes she is simply someone to confide in.
“One student came in to my office after missing two months of class,” Thompson says. When asked why, the young woman explained that she and her boyfriend had been in their car when a stranger approached them and riddled their car with bullets. Both she and her boyfriend had extensive gun shot wounds. It was her first day back at the college. She wanted to complete her classes but she had missed too much of the semester to be able to be successful.
It’s a wonder she came back at all, says Thompson, but under a set of new proposals aimed at expediting the community college experience, such students can be in jeopardy of losing their registration priority and access to financial aid.
Put forward last November by the Student Success Task Force, the recommendations are an attempt to address the roughly 50 percent of community college students who don’t complete their programs or transfer on to four year universities. Thompson and others say the recommendations, if approved, would unfairly penalize those most in need.
“Some of our students have seen so much violence,” explains Thompson, who notes that one of the more pressing concerns now is the flood of returning veterans, young men and women she describes as “often traumatized by their military experience and battling with long term PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome) symptoms that can impact their ability to focus on their academics."
“I have students who’ve done three, four tours. They refuse to go back,” she says, even though doing so jeopardizes their GI Bill benefit, which amounts to between $200 and $300 a month. “They talk of fighting two enemies… the one on the battlefield and the one at home,” i.e. the U.S. government.
Thompson comes from a long line of teachers, including both her father and grandfather. Her office is filled with the memorabilia of her time at CCSF, student photos part of a larger collage of letters and other tokens that speak to the woman and her work. “Students read your office when they first come in,” she says, her short-cropped blonde hair moving with the rapid gesturing of her hands.
The more perceptive of them may learn a thing or two. For instance, Thompson, a native of Boston, also works with students through the CCSF Queer Resource Center where she counsels students, many of whom are LGBT homeless youth, LGBT veterans and LGBT survivors of the AIDS epidemic. In addition to her academic counseling work at CCSF, she has a psychotherapy practice in the Castro where she counsels individuals and couples from a wide variety of socio-economic and cultural backgrounds.
She also sits on the Advisory Board for the school’s Trauma Prevention and Recovery Certificate Program and is an active participant on the Discrimination and Harassment Prevention Committee.
Then there’s the Spanish classes, an experience she describes as “humbling.” Having spent the past five years learning to roll her “r’s,” Thompson says she’s gained a better appreciation of student frustrations.
“I can identify with them, turning up at the wrong class on the wrong day, not getting the material.” Such experiences have made Thompson all the more effective as a counselor, a job she says entails “helping students think about themselves academically.”
During an average week, Thompson sees anywhere from 25 to 30 students on a one-to-one basis. Their needs run the gamut from simple advice on meeting transfer requirements for either the State or University of California systems to concerns about homelessness and, for immigrant students, the difficulty of adjusting to the American education system.
“I didn’t like it at first,” Thompson admits, adding that when she first began at CCSF she felt like an “information ATM.” She quickly realized, however, that understanding all the college's programs, services and policies could be quite complex and students really needed an advocate to understand how to navigate the system. “I’ve never worked with a more appreciative population,” she says. “They want help.”
And in today’s climate, most certainly need it.