Community college: a place for students of all backgrounds and experiences

Holly Shafer takes a group selfie of a community college student panel at the 2022 ATE Principal Investigators’ Conference. The students ‒ (from left) Mahoganie Wilson-Little, Shafer, Samuel Ruiz and Cody Steffy ‒ shared their perspectives on STEM program experiences. (Photo:

One person worked in a grocery store; another waited on tables. A third didn’t know what to do after high school. And then there was the high-achieving high school sophomore.

For all four, a turning point in their lives came when they enrolled in community college courses that put them on track toward rewarding, well-paying careers in advanced technology fields.

Cody Steffy, who was injured while serving in the U.S. Navy and received a medical discharge, had to reconsider his options during Covid when he had a job as a waiter. He enrolled in the information technician program at Columbus State Community College (Ohio).

Cody Steffy checks out the student poster session at the ATE PI conference. (Photo:

“I saw that as a direct path into getting a career in the realm of cybersecurity,” the 27-year-old told a group of educators and industry partners at the 2022 Advanced Technological Education (ATE) Principal Investigators’ Conference in Washington, D.C., Thursday. Steffy was among four student panelists speaking on strategies for engagement and success.

The American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) hosts the three-day meeting in partnership and with the support of the National Science Foundation (NSF). Aside from the 42 students, several hundred educators and some of the industry partners of ATE grant-funded initiatives attended the conference to share information about their innovations.

Now an apprentice at American Electric Power specializing in vulnerability management, Steffy said protecting critical infrastructure ‒ such as military hospitals, banks and government agencies ‒ from cyberattacks gives him meaning and purpose.

“With the current affairs in the world, you can see how that [an electric utility] can be weaponized. I would like to protect…the generally innocent people from losing their wellbeing,” he said.

Crime shows lead to career interest

Samuel Ruiz and his mentor, Jason Gagliano, examine data.

Samuel Ruiz said he grew up “really poor” and was not the “brightest person” in school. He didn’t know what to do with his life. But he enjoyed watching television crime shows and decided to pursue a degree at Forsyth Technical Community College (North Carolina) when he discovered it has a strong forensic science program.

“I do find the (forensics) process intriguing. When you put the puzzle together…it’s just a great reward at the end of the day. It’s a program I fell in love with,” Ruiz said, adding he would like to work in a crime laboratory as a career.

As a Forsyth Tech student, Ruiz has excelled. He has completed an internship, built up his resume and applied for scholarships. After he graduates this semester with an associate degree in criminal justice technology-forensic science, Ruiz will transfer to Appalachian State University.

Returning students and high schoolers

Holly Shafer is majoring in material science engineering at Mt. San Antonio College (California). “Being a first-generation student, I didn’t really know what college entailed,” she said, noting she had enrolled twice before in community colleges and had to take breaks from school to save money.

“I realized very soon that living from paycheck to paycheck you cannot save for college,” Shafer said.

While working in a grocery store during Covid, she said, she realized she needed to get serious about pursuing a degree. She went back to college and, with the help of her chemistry professor, received a scholarship.

Mahoganie Wilson-Little says dual-enrollment courses have made her aware of the careers she can pursue with a knowledge of STEM. 

“Returning to school was a really great thing for me,” Shafer said.

Mahoganie Wilson-Little is a sophomore at Bloomfield High School in Manchester, Connecticut, who takes courses at Manchester Community College (Connecticut). She said dual-enrollment courses are “really beneficial” because they help high school students figure out what they want to do.

“I learned there are so many outlets in the STEM [science, technology, engineering, math] field,” Wilson-Little said. “You can do anything with STEM. You can try to find where you fit, but you fit anywhere in STEM.”

What community college professors should know?

Moderating the student panel session was Pam Silvers, a computer technologies instructor at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College (North Carolina). In her nearly 30-year teaching career, Silvers said, “I’ve seen lives change for students. STEM gives students an affordable living.”

Unlike restaurant workers or Lyft drivers, she said “our students will earn more than me” after receiving their two-year degrees.

Holly Shafer in the lab as she pursues her studies in chemical and materials science engineering.

Silvers quizzed the students on what community college professors should know that would help students be as successful as possible. In general, the four students said instructors should be up to date on resources and opportunities available to them and should communicate and establish relationships with students.

Shafer and Steffy, who re-entered formal schooling later in life, said they worried if they could keep up with community college course work as older students.

“It was an uphill battle to make yourself feel that you are capable,” Shafer said.

Steffy, whose first attempt at college at age 18 did not go well, added, “Coming in, I saw myself as a failure. I really didn’t think I was capable of being a successful student.”

He said Columbus State’s professional and career development staff worked with him to change that.

“They just kept pulling the thread. ‘What are you good at? What do you like to do?’ That changed my perception of myself,” he said.

Today, Steffy said he has “got close to 4.0 GPA and will graduate in the spring.” He plans to pursue a bachelor’s degree and is currently a candidate for a cybersecurity position with a full-time salary.

“Fear and uncertainty was the driving force (before). Now it’s hope and faith and joy… and knowing that I can see myself as capable of intellectual success,” Steffy said.

More 2022 ATE PI Conference articles:
Look deeper for student potential
Presidents’ forum explains benefits of ATE grants

About the Author

Kathryn Marchocki
Kathryn Marchocki is an award-winning journalist based in New England.
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