Why not community college?

It would be unfair to say Justin Thomas had difficulty deciding on a career path when he graduated from the Wilton school system in 2012.

“To use the word difficult, you have to have some idea of what you want to do,” Mr. Thomas said during an interview in late August. “You have to have some idea, but you probably aren’t sure where to start the process. I really had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do.”

After an older friend suggested he check out the local community college, he figured it would be the most sensible path towards a career.

“I heard about it through a buddy who graduated a year before I did who said ‘it wasn’t that bad.’ I said what the hell, and I applied and got in,” he said.

Now, Mr. Thomas said, he is able to pursue an education while retaining the ability to have a full-time, corporate job at Bowtie Cinema’s headquarters in Ridgefield.

“It’s very convenient,” he said. “I’ll be doing online classes rather than going there at all. I’d rather devote that time to schoolwork and actual work.”

By entering Norwalk Community College, Mr. Thomas took a path not often traveled by graduates of Wilton High School. In 2013, just seven Wilton High School grads chose to pursue post-secondary education at a community college, though nearly 100% of students entered some sort of university.

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Joe Reardon, a 2010 Wilton graduate and former NCC-attendee, told The Bulletin  that Norwalk Community College “isn’t on the radar” of guidance counselors and students in Wilton. Mr. Reardon spent a semester at Norwalk Community College after leaving Western New England College (WNEC). He is currently a student at Eastern Connecticut State University.

“I just don’t think community college is on their radar. People going to community college from Wilton High just does not happen a lot. The norm is to go to a great school right away,” he said.

Wilton’s social “norm” passively affects many students’ and administrators’ ability to see positive opportunities community colleges can provide, he said.

“When I was 17 or 18, if someone brought up community college I would have shook my head, and said no way,” Mr. Reardon said. “It just wasn’t the thing to do. You don’t want to be that kid going to NCC who’s getting compared to the person going to Harvard.”

Since 2006, community college has been the listed “plan” of only 3.37% of Wilton High School graduates. Dr. Pamela Edington, the dean of student affairs at Norwalk Community College, said there has been a longstanding prejudice against community colleges.

“In the Northeast, there has been a longtime prejudice against... public schools. We invented private education,” she said, “and the norm is to attend a private institution.”

Another NCC-attendee, 2006 Wilton High graduate Faxon Parker, said he didn’t feel the same outside pressure when he chose to attend community college. When asked if he felt ostracized by his choice, he replied, “Not really. I was working and I was racing a 1984 Porsche on the side. It was a lot of fun being able to work, go to class, and race cars. It was a fun experience that opened up my eyes to a lot of backgrounds.”

His experience with high school guidance counselors, he said, was that they pushed him to attend a four-year school for fair reasons.

“They really focus on trying to get you into a four-year school. Wilton has a great education system that puts you far ahead of other kids thanks to the money [the town] pumps into it,” he said. “So, I think they like to see kids go right to four-year schools. They think that if you don’t have a good experience at community college, you’re going to fall into a pattern of working 40 hours a week, that you could limit your future success.”

Mr. Thomas said in Wilton, he was met with less-than-kind views of his decision.

“NCC, specifically, seems to be viewed by the students of the high school, by parents, and by teachers in a specific way. It’s frowned upon,” he said.

Dr. Edington said in many cases, high schools feel a four-year college is the best choice for students because it is already the designated path.

“High school counselors sometimes see the number of students attending a prestigious institution as a reflection of the high school,” she said.

After he enrolled in NCC, Mr. Reardon found answering questions about the school could be awkward in town.

“People would ask: ‘where do you go to school?’ I’d say NCC, and there wouldn’t be a very enthusiastic response. They’d be thinking: ‘Did he flunk out? Did he get into trouble? Why is he at NCC?’ I would never hear it to my face, but you could see it in their facial expressions, they’d act like we were in third grade,” he said.

Yet, each Wiltonian said NCC had a profound effect on their ability to meet academic and career goals. In Mr. Thomas’s case, he was able to pursue a career, and in Mr. Reardon’s case, he had the ability to take introductory steps towards adulthood at the college.

“I never could have imagined getting a high responsibility internship when I was in high school,” Mr. Reardon said. “It was more than just a school for me, because I was responsible for myself for the first time in a long time. Those were my first steps towards actually growing up. They were small steps, but the first steps for sure.”

Dr. Edington said failing to address Norwalk Community College as an option after high school would be “almost foolish” for a recent graduate in the area. The school, she said, has a newly built $12-million science and technology building, an intimate class setting, and high-quality professors.

“You get an education here that rivals any program in the area,” she said. “Norwalk is widely regarded in the communities we serve as a tremendous local resource. The biggest difficulty is getting our story out to more people.”

NCC also gave Mr. Reardon the chance to transfer to schools he “had no business getting into after high school.”

“During my one semester there, I got a 3.5 GPA, and got into 16 schools I would not have gotten into out of high school,” he said. “I was admitted to schools like UConn, Indiana, and South Carolina.”

Mr. Parker agreed that NCC is a great school to transfer out of “because it puts you in a very different age bracket for when you transfer to a four-year school,” he said.

Compared to his high school grades, NCC gave Mr. Reardon the chance to pursue the educational goals he wanted for himself.

“I was a 2.7 student regularly, one of those guys who really had to work hard to get C’s. I was out of the ordinary, not one of those kids always getting good grades,” he said. “School has always been hard for me, I’ve always had to work really hard at it. I was in resource room, and academic support services programs.”

NCC, he said, gave him the chance to learn how to be accountable to himself.

Mr. Parker, an “average” high school student, was able to find a passion at NCC,.

“I got [awarded] Man of Distinction and Honor along with nine other guys” who were nominated by teachers as exceptionally hard workers. “I went to NCC, and found that I really enjoyed psychology. I would highly recommend it if you’re not committed to [a career], and aren’t prepared to spend $47,000 a year.”

The savings Mr. Thomas sees by going to NCC is right in line with his feelings on debt, pro-activity, and college. Those who go to a four-year college, he said, emerge from school loaded with debt and — if they are lucky — a job.

Contrary to what one may assume about community college, Mr. Reardon and Mr. Parker said, their workload was never easy, or less-than-challenging in Norwalk.

“My English class was a wake-up call,” Mr. Reardon said. “At WNEC, I didn’t do that much reading at all. I got to Norwalk and I was like holy ..., I have to do 90 pages of reading a night. Going from there to UConn, and then Eastern, where there was even more reading, I was prepared for what was coming.”

All three men told The Bulletin NCC was a great choice for those students who had little idea of what they hoped to pursue.

“If people aren’t ready to go straight into school, Norwalk would be great for them,” Mr. Reardon said. “They wouldn’t be doing nothing, they’d have a plan, and the people there want them to succeed. They’d end up going somewhere   from Norwalk after.”