Los Angeles City College is trash.
That’s all I heard growing up. Friends told me LA City College was a school for old people. Because it has an open campus, we all knew that homeless people used the bathrooms and hung out at the library.
Guess where I ended up?
I grew up on the border of MacArthur Park and Koreatown in Los Angeles. And even though LA City College is a mere 2.4 miles away, everyone I knew who planned to attend community college set their sights on Santa Monica College. The campus is near the beach. Sunshine. Surf. Fresh salt air. Plus, Santa Monica is the number one transfer school to University of California and California State universities.
LA City College rests in East Hollywood. Busy, dirty streets. Crowded buses. The air tastes like car exhaust fumes. The surrounding neighborhood is too much like the one I grew up in. The same one I still live in with my parents and two brothers, 28 and 20. There are two liquor stores within a block of our family home; people drink openly in public, some until they pass out. The streets hardly feel safe at night.
So when I graduated from Miguel Contreras High School in downtown LA in 2015, LA City College was hardly on my mind. Going to a four-year college was always my plan. I put that pressure on myself, partly because I would be the first in my family to graduate from college.
The vision of graduating from a four-year college finally became realistic when I received my acceptance letter from California State University, Dominguez Hills. I was ready to be a Toro.
But then, I made a fateful decision. I was offered an opportunity to work with my older brother as a camp counselor in Vermont. I had never been on an airplane; or lived outside of LA. My brother told me that I could earn $2,000. Without hesitation, I chose money over college.
The Green Mountain State is a beautiful place. I’m a city kid, so seeing big trees and wide open skies was new to me. The first time I walked in the woods was in Vermont. But now I had no plans beyond Vermont.
I returned to Los Angeles with zero direction.
Cal State Dominguez Hills was off the table; my offer had been rescinded because I had skipped freshman orientation to be in Vermont.
I did nothing for the next couple of months. Played video games by day. Hung out with friends at night. I blew my $2,000 mostly on fast food and clothes. The whole time, though, the pressure of wanting to return to a four-year college weighed on my mind. I knew I had to make the effort and my path had to begin at a community college. That’s all I could afford.
My first choice was Santa Monica College. Until I realized the commute meant riding the bus for an hour each way, each day. LA City College, on the other hand, was only a 30-minute bus ride each way.
Guess where I ended up?
My six semesters at LA City College sailed by. I liked my professors and learned a lot in class. My grades were mostly Bs and Cs. My final fall semester was the most difficult. The only class I really worried about was statistics. It was my second time taking that class, so I didn’t want to slack off.
That’s when my mom got sick.
Her heart was filling up with blood clots, her doctor told us. More than one valve was failing.
I remember seeing her swollen ankles. The sounds of her tapping her chest repeatedly, trying to relieve the pain she felt deep in her chest. She did not sleep well.
I did my best to focus on school. But I lost that battle often knowing my mom was in serious trouble.
She ended up bed-ridden at Hollywood Presbyterian Hospital; a 10-minute walk from LA City College. The day my mom was admitted was when I realized I wouldn’t have known what to do had I been attending school in Dominguez Hills or Santa Monica.
I probably would’ve chosen to be at my mom’s side over attending class.
At first, my choice to attend LA City College was about convenience. But my ultimate reward was much greater than that. I made close friends at LA City College. I transferred out with a better grade-point average than I had from high school. I learned to be more independent.
I am sure some people still say bad things about LA City College. Just like they say bad things about my neighborhood.
All I can say is I am now one year away from graduating from Cal State, LA. One year away from my dream. And I wouldn’t be here without growing up where I did and going to LA City College.
Kilmer Salinas is a senior at California State University Los Angeles and a member of EdSource’s California Student Journalism Corps.