An Emotional Interview with a 35-Year-Old Student On the Struggles of Completing College
Sofia Hernandez has always dreamt of becoming a nurse. A diligent student, she graduated high school with honors and enrolled at Fresno State. But setbacks forced her to withdraw after the first semester, and following numerous attempts, she still has been unable to complete her degree. Now, 17 years later, Sofia is trying once again to finish college, and in an emotional interview, recounts the struggles she has faced in trying to achieve her dream.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Thanks for talking to me Sofia. The Michelson 20MM Foundation strives to eliminate barriers students face in higher education, so sharing your personal story will better inform our work as we try to achieve equity for people like yourself.
Hi Miguel. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to tell my story. I can already feel the tears coming.
Take as much time as you need.
Okay… well, my dream has always been to be a nurse, specializing in pediatrics or labor and delivery. It’s been hard to accomplish. Being raised by two immigrants who didn’t know how to navigate the college process was hard. They expected me to go to college without giving me the resources. My parents also didn’t put me in extracurricular activities so I missed out on a lot of opportunities there.
Where did you grow up?
Mid-City (Los Angeles). I’ve lived there since I was four years old, the time my mom immigrated here from Nicaragua, where I was born.
Which high school did you attend?
I went to LA High. Actually, my home school was Manual Arts but my mom didn’t want me to go there because she heard that there was a lot of gang violence and she wanted to keep me away from bad influences.
Tell me about your college journey.
It was tough because the college counselors at my high school weren’t very helpful. Plus, I didn’t have strong support from my parents even though they expected me to attend college. I saw other students getting tutored and receiving SAT prep, and none of that was available to me.
And still you managed to graduate with honors.
Yes, in 2002, and I was accepted to Fresno State’s nursing program but unfortunately I dropped out after the first semester because both of my parents were diagnosed with diabetes. Also, my dad was diagnosed with a brain tumor and my mom was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver. I’m an only child so I had to help them financially.
(Sofia pauses for a tearful moment)
We didn’t have much family so I felt responsible to help out. I’ve always put my dream on hold to take care of them, and my dad passed away when I was nineteen so I had to take responsibility as head of the houhousehold.
It’s a big responsibility. I’m sorry you went through that.
I got a job and helped out with my mom’s health. And I still never gave up. I still tried to take a class here or there at Pasadena City College. And I decided maybe it’s not going to happen. Maybe I needed to go into social work where it was less competitive and I could get my degree faster so I’d have more time to help my mom with rent and food and expenses. Then my mom got sicker and sicker so I left PCC.
What happened after that?
I tried to figure out whether to continue with nursing or not. Nursing textbooks and all that stuff cost money. Then you have your scrubs and at some point you have to do clinical hours which means leaving your full-time job.
About how much does one of those books cost?
An anatomy book cost about $150. Then there’s microbiology and organic chemistry and physiology and supplemental items. All of that is expensive. And at one point I thought I could be a full-time student and have a full-time job, but I was struggling with school. In nursing, a C is considered an F. You have to earn a B or better. I was getting two or three hours of sleep a night and falling asleep behind the wheel.
It wasn’t working out for me so I tried to get my certification as a medical assistant.
Where did you go?
Bryman College. It was amazing because I learned how to draw blood and take vitals, and I knew that’s what I wanted to do but it wasn’t happening, the financial part. So I got an internship at USC Medical Center, but once they told me the hours I couldn’t do it.
Where were you working at that time?
I had two jobs. Jamba Juice and Express.
And how much did those jobs pay?
I was a manager at Jamba Juice so I think I was getting $11 an hour. And at Express I was making $8.25.
You were working two jobs while at Byman College and taking care of your mom?
And I didn’t graduate. As a prerequisite, I had to do clinical hours at a site, so I didn’t finish. I didn’t get the certificate.
Did you end up owing the college money?
Absolutely. I was paying off a loan for a degree I didn’t even get.
How long did it take to pay it off?
Five or six years. And it bothered me making those payments, $25 to $125 a month. I ended up paying it off sooner because I got a position as an intake specialist at Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater LA. And I’ve been there for thirteen years.
You still work there?
I do. But August 23rd is my last day as a full-time employee. I’m going part-time and becoming a full-time student which means I’ll finally be able to qualify for scholarships and financial aid.
Correct me if I’m wrong, Big Brothers Big Sisters is a mentorship organization that connects youths to positive role models?
Yes and I wish my mother had put me in it when I was a child. Laughs. It makes me think about how important it is to have a mentor.
Are you still a caretaker at home?
Unfortunately my mother passed away two years ago. But I think that I was very blessed. Even though I didn’t finish my schooling I was able to be a nurse at home. Take her vitals, give her medication, bathe her, things like that. Getting an in-home nurse is expensive, but she had me. And I think it inspires me to finish school because I have a caretaker personality, and I want to save a life. I have the skills for it. So now it’s bittersweet. I can pursue my dream.
Where are you studying now?
LA Community College. I’m getting units that I can use to transfer to a Cal State or UC school.
Where do you plan to transfer?
My dream school is UCLA, but nursing programs are so competitive. They’re small. At UCLA, for 1,780 applicants, only ten get accepted in the fall. And you need a 3.8 GPA. But I’m still hopeful. I’m part of a program at UCLA called CCCP, College Communities Center Program. And it really helps us transferring and nontraditional students navigate the system – find scholarships, write personal statements. I enrolled last year and just graduated.
What’s your biggest cost as a student?
Rent, food, and books. Once I become a full-time student I’ll get a student ID which means I’ll finally be able to access the college food pantry. As a part-time student, I can’t.
What will change once you get that degree?
I’ll get a feeling of accomplishment. And I’m looking forward to being a traveling nurse, helping in developing countries, Nurses Without Borders. I want to be able to give back and make a difference with the skills and education I received.
Would you be the first in your family to achieve a college degree?
Yes, the first one.
I want to thank you deeply for chatting with me and sharing your story. It’s very inspirational.
When Shiv Gaglani and Ryan Haynes were paired together during their anatomy class at John Hopkins Medical School in 2011, they had no idea that their chance encounter would set their lives on a radical new course. Soon, the two would put their dreams of being physicians on hold in order to pursue their new ambitions as EdTech startup founders. “Ryan and I were anatomy learning partners,” Shiv recalls, thinking back to his first year at John Hopkins. “We may have been newbie medical students, but we quickly realized that the traditional cram-and-forget learning cycle was terrible for long-term knowledge retention.”
Shiv further explains that the “sage on the stage” teaching model, where knowledge is passed from professors to students, hadn’t evolved in over a century, even as technology has made tremendous strides. Understanding that technology could revolutionize the way med students learn, Shiv and Ryan began engineering a digital platform that they and their peers could use to perform better in classes and on board exams. They called their project Osmosis. What began as a passion-project quickly took on a life of its own, and transformed into a promising startup that has amassed 550,000+ registered users & 1,000,000 YouTube subscribers, and climbing.
“The goal of Osmosis is to help learners transition from basic memorization of facts to a complete understanding of medicine, starting with science and continuing all the way to patient experiences and care,” says Shiv who serves as Co-Founder and CEO of Osmosis. “We also want to shorten the length of time required for training and open up more time for extracurriculars such as research. We think that this will ultimately improve access to and quality of healthcare.”
The founders describe Osmosis as a powerful, personal learning assistant that combines virtually everything future clinicians need to dominate med school, pass their boards, and succeed in their desired medical field. The online tool merges tools like flashcards, question banks, lecture slides, video libraries, anatomy atlases, note-taking tools, and study schedules within a digital platform that is easy to use and facilitates long-term knowledge retention. Even better, it allows students to diffuse knowledge between one another (where the name Osmosis comes from), to further enhance the learning experience.
The Learning Experience
One of the standout features of Osmosis is its extensive video library, part of which is available on YouTube. The animated medical learning videos help viewers understand often complex topics on everything from atrial fibrillation to Zika virus, and breaks down the science in a way that is easy to learn and remember. Currently, the channel has amassed over 1,000,000 subscribers. Osmosis has signed more than 30 organizations on video partnerships, over two dozen institutional sales, and experienced significant year-over-year revenue growth.
Shiv lists three competitive advantages that will help take Osmosis to the next level. First, the company has produced the clearest, most concise, high-quality video library for health & medical science topics available. Second, Osmosis bills itself as the most advanced health science learning platform, incorporating proprietary recommendations and an advanced content delivery engine. Finally, the company’s strong partnerships & distribution channels will give it the edge it needs to really stand out in the competitive EdTech space.
Ultimately, Shiv sees Osmosis helping to educate new generations of clinicians as described by the company’s mission, Everyone who cares for someone will learn by Osmosis. He praises Michelson 20MM Foundation for its dedication to catalyzing many great initiatives in education and healthcare, and saw Osmosis as a perfect fit for the Michelson Runway Accelerator as the values of startup and the foundation are well-aligned.
Last week the Michelson 20MM Foundation was able to attend the Zero-Textbook Cost (ZTC) Degree summit hosted by College of the Canyons and The Community College Consortium for Open Educational Resources (CCCOER). Hundreds of ZTC and OER advocates gathered to learn about the impact of these movements within California.
ZTC Degree program was created in 2016-17 to reduce the overall cost of education for students and decrease the time it takes students to complete degree programs offered by community colleges. “ZTC Degrees” are associates degrees or career technical education certificates comprised entirely of courses that eliminate all additional textbook and material fees through the use of high quality, no-cost learning content with an emphasis on OER. The program funded twenty-three community colleges across California to develop thirty-three ZTC Degrees or Career Technical Education certificates over a two-year period.
The morning keynote was from SPARC’s Director of Open Education Nicole Allen who spoke about how OER benefits go well beyond affordability. OER can actually make education better and not just more affordable. OER can assist with making higher education a more equitable learning environment by ensuring all learners have access to their educational materials on or before their first day of classes. Nicole also reminded the audience with the textbook publishers shifting to inclusive access (automatic billing) and digital first models bring huge concerns around student data and privacy.
A highlight of the summit was a presentation by the Student OER Advocate. These group of students, funded by the Michelson 20MM Foundation, spoke about the incredible work they are doing to create a toolkit for students to lobby faculty and administration to make the switch to OER. The finished product will be released by January and will serve as a great resource for California State University and California Community College students as they inform faculty on the benefits of switching to OER. The session, facilitated by Michelson OER Fellow Dr. Barbara Illowsky, also reviewed how a project like this, that involves 8 students at campuses throughout the state, can be executed and the various challenges that may entail.
Following our Student Advocate grantees, representatives from the ZTC Degree programs at Santa Ana College, San Bernardino Valley College, Reedley College, Skyline College, College of Canyon, West Hills College Lemoore, and College of Alameda spoke about the highlights the program has had at their campuses. One example of these highlights is the $1.3 million in estimated students savings due to the implementation of 1 ZTC Degree at Skyline College.
The jam packed day included a presentation by CSU-Channel Islands of their own ZTC Degrees which they call Z-Degrees. These degrees are the first of their kind in the Cal State system. The afternoon consisted of breakout sessions on a variety of different topics including ZTC outcomes data gathering, open pedagogy, sustainability of ZTC Degrees, and engaging students in OER. The day ended with a closing keynote from Hal Plotkin, former Senior Policy Advisor in the U.S. Department of Education, around the power and future of ZTC Degrees.
Overall, attendees left the conference energized about the benefits for students and institutions offered by the ZTC Degree program. These advocates will continue to work on the ground at their schools to further these efforts to decrease costs for students and increase equitable solutions. The ground is fertile for additional investments in the ZTC Degree program.
Una Daly is the director of the Community College Consortium for Open Educational Resources (CCCOER), a division of the Open Education Consortium (OEC). She is a regular speaker at OER conferences and summits focused on best practices for open education at community colleges. I recently had the chance to talk to her about her work within the OER movement and its impact at the community college level.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Let’s start by talking about how you became involved in the OER movement.
About a year before I started working at Foothill College, Dr. Martha Kanter, who was then chancellor of the Foothill-De Anza Community College District, began developing her vision for open education at community colleges. At the time, elite private and some public universities were engaged in OER but it was new territory for community colleges even though it aligns perfectly with the community college mission of providing the top 100% of students with a high quality and affordable education.
I was an adjunct faculty for the Computer Technology Information Systems department when I heard about the OER initiative which was focused on building a community of practice for OER adoption at community colleges. The concept of reducing barriers for students and working across state boundaries was exciting to me. The project was already taking shape thanks to the efforts of the Dean of Online Learning Dr. Judy Baker, Director Jacky Hood, and DeAnza College Professor Barbara Illowsky who was the first to write and adopt an open textbook as part of her Introduction to Statistics course.
Tell me about your current position at the CCCOER.
Back in 2011, CCCOER had grown beyond its original inception and we merged with the Open Education Consortium (OEC), a larger and global organization with members around the world. We were the first community college system to join and now make up about 30% of the worldwide membership. CCCOER’s members span 34 U.S. states with about half representing individual colleges and the other half statewide systems or large districts. We support the leaders and practitioners who do the work of training faculty to develop and adopt OER. Those involved can be anyone from high level administrations, deans and directors, librarians, instructructional staff, faculty and even students. We share best practices for developing OER and Zero Textbook Cost Degrees to help members launch their open education projects and build them to be sustainable.
As our statewide and large system membership grows, we are seeing a need to provide more regional leadership collaboration opportunities to share information and solve issues across institutional and state boundaries. This is an effort we are launching this fall.
Why are community college students in particular impacted by the textbook affordability issue?
Community colleges serve the most diverse student population of all our higher education institutions. Many are first generation and lower income so expensive textbooks hit them especially hard. Community colleges were created to provide high-quality and affordable education for all students and thus the focus on reducing barriers including cost for these non-traditional students is key to the mission.
How do Zero Textbook Cost (ZTC) degrees encourage college completion?
So up until four or five years ago, we mostly supported individual faculty who were adopting OER in their classrooms. In a few cases this led to full department adoption which was wonderful. For example, at Scottsdale Community College the entire math department transitioned to OER but the average student might only take one or two math courses. There is research that shows that the cost of textbooks causes students to drop classes or take different classes extending their time to graduation. Many community college students attend part-time already simply because they can’t afford the textbooks and tuition for an entire semester while also supporting themselves and their families. So a ZTC degree lets a student know they won’t ever have to worry about a huge textbook bill, which removes a significant barrier that might prevent them from dropping classes or dropping out altogether.
What part do OER and ZTC degrees play in student recruitment and retainment?
We in the OER movement have learned that, unfortunately, while faculty members may adopt OER, the adoption isn’t always visible to the students who need it the most. Students who work 20 hours a week are less likely to be aware that these free, open resources exist and can help them earn their degrees. Outreach is important including counselors and student services promoting OER and ZTC to students. Five states including California have passed laws requiring institutions to mark courses that are zero textbook cost or low cost to help students find these options while registering for classes.
For a community college, offering zero textbook cost degrees can serve as a marketing tool to attract students who are looking for more affordable options. Additionally, a college that promotes OER demonstrates that it is conscious of the affordability issues and is making efforts to help. It signals to students that the college is really on their side and this support can motivate students to enroll and complete their degree.
What are some of the next growth areas within the OER movement?
Guided Pathways at two-year colleges is a nationwide strategy for substantially improving graduation rates and to narrow gaps in completion among student groups, There is a natural alignment between Guided Pathways and ZTC degrees to reduce equity gaps and help keep students on the path towards graduation by reducing barriers.
Workforce development is another key focus for community colleges and this is still an area of growth for open educational resources. Many member institutions have expressed a need to find and develop more open resources to support their workforce programs.
Explain College Promise and how it has become part of the OER conversation.
College Promise is a program where the first year of college is tuition-free for qualifying high school students. Participating colleges will pick up the cost of textbooks which can be considerable even with some reuse of the textbooks. But what if they adopted OER? It would save the colleges a significant amount of money each year and students can print materials that they choose to keep.
Speaking of high school students, they’ve recently become a growing part of the OER discussion.
Indeed. High school dual-enrollment programs are another growth area within the OER movement. We’re hearing from more and more community colleges that 25% upwards to 50% of those enrolled are actually high school students. But who buys their textbooks? Sometimes it’s the school district. Sometimes it’s the college. Sometimes it’s the student’s family? So now, high schools are requesting OER-based dual-enrollment college courses to offset that burden.
How does the idea of Open Pedagogy relate to the OER movement?
The cost of textbooks is not the only element driving OER, there’s also interest in improving pedagogy. Open Pedagogy is the term used to describe these new open practices and is gaining momentum to improve the learning experience for students. Open textbooks allow instructors to edit and customize materials to make them more relevant but they can also include students in the development process. Engaging students in their learning this way allows them to help educate their peers and also share with subject matter experts outside the classroom. So openness in education changes the way teaching itself is done and gives students more ownership of their learning providing skills that will help them to be more successful in the job market after graduation.
Is there anything else you’d like to share about OER?
It’s a really incredible time for folks like me in the OER space as we see this amazing movement become mainstream and expand to so many institutions. We’re excited to see the impact it can have to improve teaching and learning and help students to be successful now and in the future.
Village Capital, which has operated a mentorship and investment program for education startups since 2013, has announced its newest class. The latest program, called and focused on “Future of Work & Learning,” features 12 startups from the U.S. and Canada addressing a range of education and workforce-related needs. Unlike previous years, this cohort focuses much more on workforce development issues, in industries as specific as cosmetology, and on topics as broad as cultural education for remote teams that span the globe.
The Michelson 20MM Foundation will invest in $100,000 in the two companies that received the best marks. Other program partners include Autodesk Foundation, AT&T and the Lumina Foundation, which are providing financial support for program operations and will have mentors in the workshops.