By Cesar Canizales
Four high-achieving students from the Dallas County Community College District enjoyed the opportunity of a lifetime recently when they visited the nation's capital, met with policy makers and advocated for issues that affect community colleges during this year's Community College National Legislative Summit. The summit is presented annually by the Association of Community College Trustees.
The four students who traveled to Washington, D.C., attend four different DCCCD colleges: Chelsea Garcia, El Centro; Susana Rodriguez, Mountain View; Ka'Von Lee, Cedar Valley; and Javier Perez, Brookhaven. They are leaders at their respective campuses, and they all felt it was an honor and a privilege to represent their schools and the district at the summit.
They were accompanied on the trip by DCCCD's chancellor, Dr. Joe May; Charletta Rogers Compton, chair of the DCCCD board of trustees; Dr. Justin Lonon, the district's executive vice chancellor; and Isaac Faz, associate vice chancellor for public and governmental affairs.
"We started these visits several years ago because our students tell DCCCD's story better than anyone else. They represented us well – as they always do," said May. "Their energy, positive attitudes and meaningful testimonials impressed legislators and staff members wherever they went."
The four students met with Texas Reps. Pete Sessions, a Republican, and Marc Veasey, a Democrat, as well as GOP Sen. John Cornyn. They discussed some of the most important issues that community college students face, including the restoration of the year-round Pell grant, a federal education subsidy which is issued most frequently to low-income students.
In addition, they discussed DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a federal policy implemented in 2012 that defers deportation action against children of undocumented immigrants and grants them temporary working permits.
Chelsea Garcia, who attends El Centro and is the vice president of the Student Government Association, said she and the other students shared their individual journeys with policymakers and told them how important it is for legislators to create opportunities that help students.
"It was an amazing and life-changing experience," Garcia said. "Being able to speak to so many important people opened my eyes to my future and what I'm capable of achieving. We told them how community college has shaped our lives."
Garcia added that all three lawmakers were very receptive to the issue of the year-round Pell grant. "When it came to the Pell, they all seemed to be for it, especially when we emphasized the workforce aspect," she said.
Susana Rodriguez, an immigrant who is majoring in business at Mountain View and who has earned a 3.94 grade point average, said the trip was surreal. She said she told legislators about her own experiences and asked them about their thoughts regarding "dreamers," as the beneficiaries of DACA are sometimes called.
"I explained to them that immigrants are here to contribute," Rodriguez said. "I wanted them to know about us, people like me."
Rodriguez, who advocates for the advancement of Latino students at her college, said Sessions explained that the two parties have different views on the issue. He also emphasized that the solution is in the middle and requires both sides to compromise.
Ka'Von Lee, a business administration major at Cedar Valley, said he had never been exposed to national politics and described the meetings with the lawmakers as an "educational" experience.
"Meeting with politicians at the federal level was intriguing because we met with Republicans and Democrats," Lee said. "They told us that the world works around compromise, but a lot of people only want things to go their way. These representatives said if we find compromise, a lot of issues can be settled."
Garcia said Sessions was receptive to the idea of finding a "balance of agreement" between Republicans and Democrats when it comes to the issue of immigration.
Javier Perez, who is majoring in finance at Brookhaven and who is a member of the Phi Theta Kappa honor society, told legislators about his experience of graduating from high school with a 1.7 GPA and now earning a 3.7 GPA at Brookhaven. As a result, he is on the verge of receiving a full scholarship to Southern Methodist University.
"Some people say community college is a stepping stone to success, but I told the legislators that community college is a sling shot to success," Perez said. Eventually, Perez said he would like to earn an MBA at the Wharton School of Business or at Stanford Business School, and then he wants work in private equity on Wall Street.
Lee, a 3.87 GPA student, said he felt privileged to represent DCCCD at the summit because he didn't have many role models in his community when he was growing up. "Until I got to the collegiate level, I never saw myself representing my community or my college," he said. "Now I want to go back to my community and become a role model. I think if we keep repeating the same bad cycle, we'll keep getting the same bad results. I don't want to repeat that cycle."
"Four years ago, I couldn't even articulate a word in English," Rodriguez said. "Now, I had this incredible experience, and I had the opportunity to speak to congressmen about the challenges of going to college and getting an education." Rodriguez added that she hopes to receive a scholarship to attend SMU after she graduates from Mountain View.
Garcia added that she already has been accepted to attend the University of Texas at Dallas, but she also has applied to the University of Texas in Austin and Columbia University in New York.
The summit brings together community college leaders from across the country to advocate for issues that affect two-year schools. Attendees get the opportunity to network with other community college leaders and learn about changes in policies and laws that affect their institutions.
(Left to right) Javier Perez, Ka'Von Lee,
Chelsea Garcia, Susana Rodriguez
and Dr. Joe May.