Degreed Students Go Back To School

Davina Walker has a bachelor’s degree in international studies from Ohio State University and a master’s degree in teaching English as a second language from the Monterey Institute of International Studies.

And she’s a community college student.

Historically, community colleges are havens for students who are not yet prepared for the rigors of obtaining four-year degrees.

But these days, a good percentage of the students are people like Walker, who is studying to be a physical therapy assistant at Mesa College in San Diego. They are finding that career-technical-education programs lead to stable, well-paying jobs.

The students already have bachelor’s or master’s degrees and in some cases, even doctorates.

About 16 percent of the students enrolled in the San Diego Community College District — home of Mesa, Miramar and City colleges — have advanced degrees.

Many of those students found that their liberal arts degrees did not make for a career or that their university education did not equip them with technical skills to be competitive in the job market. Some are also trying to make a career change without incurring hefty student loans.

“I wish somebody had told me how useful community college was, and how it’s geared toward getting a job after you graduate,” said Walker, 35. “I would have gone first to community college.”

She noted that many of her friends with bachelor’s degrees have struggled to find work. For a while, Walker taught English abroad. After returning to the United States in 2007, she found that full-time jobs with benefits teaching English usually go to people with doctorates. She enjoyed teaching, but she didn’t want to go into debt again to get a doctorate.

After some research, Walker decided to enroll in Mesa’s physical therapist assistant program.

According to the California Employment Development Department, the median pay of a physical therapist assistant in San Diego County is $59,590 a year.

“If you graduate from a professional program like the PTA program, you can get a good job. You are well-trained, and you’re practicing exactly what you are going to be doing in your field,” Walker said. “What did I practice in international relations? Nothing!”

One of the hallmarks of the community college career education programs is that students receive hands-on training in technology and techniques from instructors who still work in their field, or did for many years. In health care-related programs, students are placed into clinical settings.

On a recent Tuesday in a Biology 133 class, part of Miramar College’s applied biotechnology program, students were hunched over tables with lab equipment used for protein analysis.

Professor Buran Haidar, a former research scientist with a doctorate, teaches the class. Haidar often invites industry professionals to give lectures and provide demonstrations.

Most of the students in her class have advanced degrees. One has a doctorate in chemistry, four have master’s degrees and 10 have bachelor’s in arts or science.

Hans Lin, who graduated from University of California Berkeley over the summer with a degree in integrated biology, is one of Haidar’s students.

At Berkeley, “I learned a lot of theoretical stuff. I didn’t get the lab skills,” said Lin, who is hoping that a certificate in applied biotechnology will help him land a job in biotech or academia.

He said hundreds of students graduate each year with Berkeley biology degrees, and there are not enough research lab positions to go around.

“My lack of an internship and laboratory experience impeded me from getting a job,” Lin said.

The radiologic technology and interior design programs at Mesa College also draw college graduates.

According to the state, the median pay for radiologic technicians in San Diego County is $62,395 a year; for interior designers, it’s $50,187 a year.

Petra Rupp, 24, graduated from Trinity University in Texas with a degree in international studies and a minor in French and art in 2006. Rupp is now enrolled in the interior design program.

Like many liberal arts majors, she struggled to find a good job after college. For a while, Rupp worked booking travel nurses, but she was bored. She longed to do something creative. She researched master’s degree programs but was put off by the high tuitions.

Initially, she was wary about attending a community college but her view has changed.

Her classmates include lawyers, nurses and an investment banker from Brazil, as well as students fresh out of high school.

The diversity “was not something I was able to experience at a liberal arts school. With interior design, you want a worldly perspective. It’s not just one experience you want,” Rupp said.

Lori Lipsman, 54, who has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in fine arts, is also enrolled in the interior design program. Like Rupp, Lipsman is impressed with the caliber of education she is getting, and the low cost.

“I am still paying off the student loans I already had from my other degrees,” she said. “I can’t go into more debt for this kind of education.”

At Mesa, Lipsman is paying $26 per unit. Private schools, she said, could easily charge $600 per unit.

“Nothing is going to be as inexpensive as going to Mesa,” she said. “I feel so fortunate to have that resource here.”


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