If you ask Interact’s founder and CEO, Dr. Pam Cox-Otto, this question, you’ll likely see her tear up as she shares her dear, departed mother’s own life-changing community college journey.
Pam recounts how her mother, whom she fondly describes as “the heart of our family,” traveled throughout Europe, India, and South America with her young children, often serving as an embassy hostess, while Pam’s father served as a construction engineer building dams in third-world countries.
When the family moved into the jungle, closer to her husband’s work site, she became a philanthropist, growing garden food to share and recruiting her nurse friend to visit small villages in need of modern healthcare.
“She was forthright, warm, and a problem solver,” says Pam. “She was also a high school dropout, having married my father when she was 15 and never returning to finish school.”
“All of my life, I saw her as somebody who was smart and wise, but she did not see herself that way,” Pam remembers. “Finally, when I was a junior in high school in California, she went back to night school at the local community college (Thank you, College of the Redwoods!) to finish her GED.”
And the rest, as they say, is history—a new history written, not just for Pam’s mom, who continued on to earn a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree, but for Pam, her sister, and generations to come.
“It started with my mother and my sister, and it started at a community college. From that time on, everyone in my family has graduated college. Some of us have master’s degrees and others have terminal degrees. But whatever the degree, it is clear the entire trajectory of my family changed when my mother and my sister went to community college.”
Pam remains grateful to College of the Redwoods. “They showed my mom that she had what it took. They nurtured her abilities. They helped push back against her fears. That’s why I love two-year schools. Had they not been there, had they not offered the support and opportunity to my family when it was needed, we would not be where we are.”
And where is that? Pam beams with pride, sharing, “My niece owned a dance studio. My nephew was a senior engineer with the Department of Defense. And I started a company called Interact.”
Yes, you did, Pam. What’s more, you built an entire team that’s passionate about community colleges. So much so that we could hardly contain ourselves when sharing why we love community colleges. Consider this our collective valentine to the colleges we love.
1.Why we love community colleges…They do more than change lives, they change generations
I love community colleges because community college is where my mom took her classes to become a real estate agent. She was able to attend college for free, and I remember her studying from huge books back when I was in elementary school. Today, she is a five-star real estate agent who is in the top one percent of salespeople in the United States!
CHERYL BROOM: President
Community college has had a big impact on my family’s life. I was fortunate to have received a scholarship to attend a 4-year college. However, my husband did not receive any financial assistance. He attended community college and then transferred to UC Berkeley, where he earned his Ph.D. in sociology. He is the only member of his family to have graduated from college. His success has made a positive impact on our family (both immediate and extended) in many ways, including financially.
HILDA MARTINEZ: Director of Communications
2. They are beacons of hope and catalysts for change
I redesigned my career at Sierra College as a returning student by taking Career Education classes. That’s where I got my solid foundation in marketing and PR, and I found a passion for telling students’ stories in articles, social media, video, and beyond. And that’s when my writing career took off like a rocket, fueled by the incredible stories I got to write about. Just like me, these students found affordable ways to try something new, reinvent themselves, and find community. Now I have my dream job writing inspiring stories and spreading the good word about community colleges around the country.
RACHEL ROSEN-CARROLL: Copywriter
I love community colleges because of the sense of community they provide and the hope they give students. My sister struggled at a dead-end job as a young mother trying to make ends meet. She went to school while working and being a mother and was able to complete her associate degree and become an RN. Her life was greatly improved because of this opportunity and I was able to see my oldest sister persevere instead of struggling.
KRISTEL KEYS RUNNING: Director of Communications
I came to this country as a high school exchange student. I fell in love with the area and decided to come back for college. I was accepted into the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, but it was too costly. I found a graphic design program at Western Technical College and decided to start there. As I was about to graduate, pack my things, and go back home, I was discovered by Interact at the college’s Portfolio Review event. Not long after that, I was hired as a graphic designer. I was able to obtain a work permit and start working while pursuing a bachelor’s degree. Ten years later, I am now a U.S. citizen, happily married, and get to do what I love every day at work. Community college gave me an opportunity to start a life in this country.
“MAI” KAMOLCHANOK YINGNEUK:Creative Director
Community colleges built this beautiful country of ours!
ANDREW HUGHES:Vice President, Project Management
3. They welcome everyone with open arms
Working for a community college was one of the best experiences I’ve had in my career. The people are passionate, kind-hearted, and willing to do whatever it takes to help their students succeed. At Lone Star College in Texas, I loved seeing the true diversity of the community college student: the traditional 18-year-old recent high school grad, the full-time student taking night classes to finish their degree, the middle-aged worker looking to obtain an extra certification for a promotion, and even the older adult looking to take an art class (just for fun!)
JAMIE WAGNER:Executive Director of Media Prefs
In high school, I attended San Jose Community College to take a college-level class. While in college, I spent a summer taking general ed classes at Mission College to save money. It wasn’t until I was a reporter covering community colleges that I saw how influential community colleges could be to the students who took their first step into higher education as well as the community at large. I covered numerous commencement ceremonies and I never failed to find graduation stories at community colleges illustrating perseverance, resilience, and triumph: the 90-year-old finally earning a degree he always wanted, the first-generation student who found a love for science at a community college and went on to be a researcher, and the single mother who began taking ESL courses at a community college and continued her education to become a nurse, to name only a few. Community colleges elevate individuals, as well as entire communities. That’s why I love them.
ALEJANDRA NAVARRO: Director of Communications
I’ve come to believe that we are all touched by a community college, either directly through our own attendance or indirectly through the influence they have on our communities and the people around us. I, for one, went straight to a four-year after high school, but recently found out that my father, before going on to get a doctorate in ministry from the Claremont School of Theology, graduated from Santa Monica City College. I even found old SMCC gym shorts in his things! Considering that he was legally blind, my guess is SMCC provided convenient, close-to-home access for someone with unique needs. I often write copy that portrays community colleges as a bridge between our pasts and our futures. In my case, it is literally true.
MICHAEL MAHIN, Ph.D.:Sr. Copywriter
The reasons that make me love community colleges revolve around the many personal experiences I have had when visiting them for on-site research. The people I meet and the warm welcomes I receive when visiting them in person could be written off as just them trying to be nice to me as a representative of Interact, but I have also received similar welcomes when visiting the campuses incognito. I have found that even in cities and areas of the country that are not normally considered to be friendly to outsiders, people (faculty, staff, and students) on community college campuses are generally a lot more friendly, welcoming, and accepting by far.
MARK MASTEJ: Lead Research and Communications Analyst
4. They’re the real deal, nothing fake or pretentious about them
I love helping community colleges to succeed as they are NOT all about:
Making themselves money
Making themselves famous
Generating a business by leveraging those who are less fortunate
They ARE all about:
Helping people succeed
Offering options not available in other higher education environments
Motivating those who are defeated
Lifting up those that have fallen
ANTHONY JONES:Vice President, Technology and Operations
I did not go to community college, but if I could do college over again, I definitely would. I meandered around majors my first two years at San Diego State University. It could be difficult to get classes, so sometimes I’d declare majors just to give myself a better shot at crashing core classes! All in all, without a clear idea of what I wanted to ‘do’—those years would have been better spent at community college, saving my family money.
CHRIS WALKER:Vice President, West and Central Communications
Being able to travel all around the country and visit the different colleges we work with, I am able to see things that make each one unique. Some campuses are small, and everyone knows each other. Others are large and university-like. Some are in the hearts of downtowns and others in picturesque landscapes. The best thing about all of them is they fit their unique community.
SARA SAMPEY:Lead Videographer, Editor
5. They define true grit
The word that comes to mind when I think of community colleges is grit.When I attended and worked at MiraCosta College, I met many students, faculty, and staff striving to discover. Their grit inspired me at 18. Community colleges tackle equity and create a place for students to develop their own grit. I loved it at 18 and I love it now. Angela Duckworth, author of “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance” writes about a lifetime of developing grit and if there was a ground level…I would bet it would be at community college campuses.
ALANA VILLEMEZ: Director of Communications
Whenever I talk to someone about their community college experience, I love watching their face light up as they tell me their stories. It’s a beautiful thing and I wish more people saw that. But that’s just it… Despite not getting the credit they deserve, community colleges continue on and focus on the students. And that says so much about what truly matters. How could you not love that?
ANGELA CAROLLO: Director of Marketing
I owe my educational success to Saddleback College. If it weren’t for their teachers and staff, I wouldn’t be where I am today with a bachelor’s and master’s degree and a wonderful job at Interact. Being a previous student and employee at community colleges, I’ve always had a love for them and all they stand for. Their mission and love for their students is so admirable and they truly want their students to succeed. Our community colleges work long and hard and their efforts too often go unrecognized.
KIRSTEN YORK:Account Coordinator
6. They love us back!
I loved my university, and I loved my community college. The difference? My community college loved me back.
Community college is where my English teacher, noticing my weirdo sense of humor, lent me her personal copy of “A Confederacy of Dunces,” certain it would become my favorite book. Spoiler alert: it did. Later, at university, I’d write a paper about it. What did my professor think of the effort? Who knows? A GSI graded it…
As a Watergate-obsessed journalism student, community college was my Bernstein—plucky, progressive, self-made, and devoid of pedigree or flash. Meanwhile, my university was Bob Woodward—acclaimed, brilliant…but clearly playing the game on “easy mode.” When I see one of my university classmates succeeding, I see a Woodward, and it makes me happy. When I see a community college success story, I see a Bernstein, and it makes me proud.
JAMES WISEMAN: Director of Creative Strategy
Here’s to all of the community and technical colleges that gave us our starts, inspire our grit, and make us proud.