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Students Talk and Legislators Listen

photo of Sen. John Cornyn and DCCCD staff/students

When a Katrina evacuee, an eighth-grade dropout and a reverse transfer student walked through the doors of the Dallas County Community College District one or two years ago, they each shared a common goal: to learn and to improve their lives.

A year later, those students — Albert Palmer, Vicki Riley and Michael Sorrells — expanded that goal, deciding to finish their associate degrees, transfer to a university and use the skills and knowledge they learn to achieve personal and professional success. And they recently took their diverse stories to the steps of the nation’s capital as participants in the National Legislative Summit, sponsored by the Association of Community College Trustees.

In 2007, DCCCD officials took students from four colleges to the summit, where they shared their unique stories and accomplishments. Palmer, Riley and Sorrells went this year to represent the district’s other three colleges. The value of those student testimonials is difficult to measure, but “when students talk, legislators listen,” says Justin Lonon, DCCCD’s executive director of public and governmental affairs, who accompanied the students on their trip. “This trip — and our students’ input — make a big difference in what we do on the Hill. Staff members for the senators and congressmen have been enthusiastic about their bosses’ experiences with our students.”

Visits were scheduled with Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison and John Cornyn, as well as Reps. Pete Sessions, Sam Johnson, Jeb Hensarling, Eddie Bernice Johnson and Kenny Marchant.

Elected officials and staff members welcomed the DCCCD students and listened to their stories. The feedback has been positive. Michelle Chin, a legislative assistant for Cornyn, says in a follow-up letter: “I know Senator Cornyn was very impressed with the students’ testimony. Thank you for sharing your stories with us!”

Palmer’s story is only one example that illustrates the value of community colleges. Looking for a photography class that would help him with his business, he saw a television commercial for DCCCD and decided to enroll at Richland College. An instructor asked him to try some business classes, too. Palmer says, “I discovered my purpose in life.” Previously a student at Southern University, he fled to Texas in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Born and raised in Baton Rouge, La., he arrived in Dallas with two T-shirts, one pair of shorts and $23 to his name — mostly in change.

“Richland College changed my life. I shared my story with legislators in Washington, which is a great city to visit,” says Palmer. He adds, with a smile, “The most important lesson we learned was that when (DCCCD) Trustee Kitty Boyle speaks, Washington listens.” (Boyle recently served as chair of ACCT and is actively involved at the national level in her support for all community colleges.) 

Palmer will finish his degree in management at Richland and then transfer to Southern Methodist University, where he will pursue bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in several areas of management. He currently serves as president of the African American/Latino Student Alliance and the Richland College Management Club; he also is a member of RLC’s Student Government Association and the academic honorary Phi Theta Kappa.

Riley followed a different path to community college, never expecting that an eighth-grade dropout could be a proud example for her daughter.

“I get teary-eyed, knowing what the trip meant to me — an eighth-grade dropout, welfare mom, cancer survivor, injured worker and, now, community college student,” says Riley.  A friend encouraged her to enroll at North Lake College. “My high school-aged daughter didn’t see the value of college because her mom hadn’t gone. Now I’ve become a role model for her, and she wants to go to college, too!  My trip to Washington gave me a chance to tell others about the value of college for me.”

Riley, who went back last year to finish her GED and graduate from high school, is a member of Phi Theta Kappa. She is studying computer technology and says that the small classes and individual attention she receives at North Lake College keep her going. “The doors of my life began to open because of the Dallas County Community Colleges, and I have grown to be respected which, in turn, has grown my self-esteem.” She wants to become an event planner and motivational speaker. When she completes her studies at North Lake, Riley intends to transfer to the University of Texas at Arlington to finish her bachelor’s degree in speech communications.

Sorrells, who graduated among the top 10 in his high school, was enrolled at the University of Texas at Austin and then became a reverse transfer student when his father lost his job. He was skeptical, at first, about the value of a community college in comparison to a major university, but he discovered that CVC met his needs.

“I enjoy the smaller classes and lower tuition offered by a community college,” says Sorrells. “Coming to Cedar Valley was one of the best decisions I ever made. I have professors with doctorates who teach my classes, instead of teaching assistants. Community colleges build trust and give you a professional education.”

Sorrells, who is involved in student activities on campus through Student Programs and Resources, will receive his associate degree in art in May 2008 and plans to pursue a degree in Spanish at the University of North Texas. He had not considered teaching until he began his studies at Cedar Valley College; now he wants to earn a doctorate in Spanish and teach at the college level.

“My trip to Washington helped me learn more about all of the work that everyone else does for students,” says Sorrells. “Community college was there for me when I needed it. I’m now more aware of the higher education process.”

Palmer, Riley and Sorrells are examples of the not-so-typical community college student; each one has a story, and each one found a solution among DCCCD’s colleges. Approximately 70 percent of the district’s students are transfer students who work to finish their studies and then earn undergraduate and graduate degrees at four-year institutions. 


By Ann Hatch, DCCCD director of media relations