'Screw The Negativity': The Long Road To One Student's Dream School
Waitressing through her 20s was wearing thin on Sammie Zenoz. "It can really take its toll on you not to follow your dreams or live up to your potential," she said.
Zenoz dropped out of high school as a sophomore ("I couldn't find my place"), got her GED at 16, found a job and started community college at 17. She flunked her first two semesters, lost her financial aid, and dropped out of community college, too. She eventually went back, but more than a decade later, she couldn't seem to shake her perennial working student status.
"I was just down on myself for a long time," Zenoz said. "I felt like kind of a failure."
But she kept taking classes, when she could afford it, at her local community college in the Miami suburbs. She kept dreaming of a life beyond waitressing. And little by little, Zenoz started to build the momentum that would eventually land her a scholarship, mentors and a path to USC's acclaimed film school.
The Transfer Conundrum
Zenoz's mother and her grandparents on both sides had come to the U.S. from Cuba. Both of her parents attended the same community college as Zenoz did, but stopped there with their education.
She knew people in the restaurant business who had gotten their college degrees and then ended up waiting tables. "I had a lot of negativity in my workplace," she said, "so that kind of weighed down on me a lot."
But Zenoz was determined to block it out. On the advice of a professor, she switched her major from Biology to English. She became president of the campus human rights club and editor-in-chief of its literary magazine. "I said, screw the negativity," she recalled.
Zenoz was now thinking about transferring to a four-year university, but she didn't know how and where to apply, and she didn't know how she'd pay for it.
Many students eventually figure out what they need to succeed in higher education, but not because they learned about it in high school, or because it was written down in any official handbook. Instead, they succeed because they uncover resources and help that exist if only you know where to look.
The students featured in our ongoing Hidden Curriculum series successfully navigated higher education while faced with particular challenges because of their background and life circumstances.
"I guess when you come from a family that has gone to these big colleges, your parents already know about the application process, they know how to counsel you," she said. Hers did not.
Neither did others in her life, Zenoz said. She and her peers had heard horror stories about how much some students pay to attend college — annual tuition bills over $70,000 — and, afterwards, debts in the hundreds of thousands. "So they're like, 'Oh, I'm not gonna bother with school," Zenoz said. "I'm not going to buy into this system, it's not worth it."
Zenoz might have thought this, too, but then she got a scholarship that changed everything.
From Dreaming To Planning
Only about one in every three community college students who enroll to get a degree end up transferring to a four-year college within six years, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Low-income students transfer at an even lower rate, about one in four.
At California community colleges, the transfer rate varies widely by school and by students' race and ethnicity, with Asian students transferring at nearly twice the rate of Black students, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.
The California community college system has been working to increase transfer rates, with mixed success, through initiatives like the Associate Degree for Transfer, promise programs and by eliminating remedial courses. State leaders are trying to improve transfer rates in two ways: by increasing financial aid, and with a new law that requires the University of California and California State University systems to make their transfer requirements clearer and more standardized.
Students often complain that a major hurdle to transferring is the lack of academic counselors to help them understand and map out the courses they need to transfer.
One of Zenoz's professors saw her potential and helped her research ways to fund her continuing education. Zenoz applied for and won a scholarship for LGBTQ community college students from the Los Angeles-based Point Foundation. It helped pay for the community college classes she still needed to transfer, and paired her with a mentor. The foundation also flew her to L.A. for a transfer symposium, where she learned about financial aid and how to write a compelling personal statement.
"Learning that there was a way to go to school was where I kind of allowed myself to start dreaming again," Zenoz said, "and then now that I had all this information, I felt like I was planning, I wasn't dreaming."
Zenoz went home, shared what she had learned with her girlfriend, and convinced her to go back and finish community college too. "So we kind of navigated all of this together," she said. They applied to a batch of schools. Zenoz got into some of them, but wasn't sure the financial aid packages they offered would be enough. She decided to wait a year, and try again.
"It was hard to say no to those first schools," Zenoz said. "But I felt like I was meant for something more. I took a bet on myself."
She and her girlfriend applied to more schools the following year, including Zenoz's dream school, USC. Her girlfriend got in. She didn't.
"I was crushed. And there was that voice in my head that was kind of like, 'You knew that you weren't going to get in, you didn't have a high GPA.'" But she also knew there was one more possibility: she could appeal the decision.
"They make you write this one-page letter ... I just spent two weeks really thinking about my journey academically and how bad I wanted this, like so badly that it hurt," Zenoz said.
She wrote the letter. It was gutsy, self-confident. "I was like, I'm certain that I'm going to be a very successful writer one day and it would be a huge mistake to overlook me now," Zenoz said. "I had to really let them know, I am ready, I plan to have a 4.0 at the next institution I attend."
It worked. She got in, and USC met 100% of her financial need. "I called my mom and my dad first. I was like, 'Look, I did it! This is my redemption.' It just felt like this really great, full arc that I completed."
Winning The Transfer Game: Sammie's Tips
Zenoz said her grades improved when she started paying attention to who was teaching a particular class before signing up. "Every semester, when registration rolls out and they got all those classes and the teachers' names are on them, look them up," she said. "Maybe they have a LinkedIn or something."
She's a big fan of the website Rate My Professors, which Zenoz describes as "Yelp for teachers," though she takes negative reviews with a grain of salt. Zenoz said she avoids professors who seem like they're not prepared or aren't clear about how they grade.
"Signing up for classes is kind of deciding who you want to sit in a room with for 14 weeks for a few hours every week. It's a really important decision," she said.
She also looks out for professors who might become friends and mentors. "That's a potential letter of recommendation, if you're being strategic," Zenoz said.
Zenoz also used other online forums where students congregate, like Reddit and College Confidential, to get tips on transferring, and once she got accepted to USC, to learn everything she could about her new campus. "I tried to look to see what extracurriculars they had because I knew I wanted to get involved. I joined all their events pages," she said.
Zenoz now works as a transfer ambassador for USC, helping mentor local community college students who hope to transfer. She said one of the most common concerns she hears is how to make friends and find a community on campus.
At first, Zenoz, who's 32, found the age difference between her and many of the younger students in her classes awkward. "You're like not going to ask an 18-year-old to hang out," she said. But she's gotten over it. "I try not to draw that line and separate myself … because I have a lot in common with them. We're taking the same class. We might have the same dreams. They might be in a high-up position one day and hire me," she said.
Zenoz shared a tip she learned from an acting professor: the "20-year friend." "When you meet somebody, even if they're a stranger, try and treat them like they're a friend that you've had for the last 20 years, with a sense of familiarity and warmth and care," Zenoz said. "It just has this really beautiful effect. People start to warm up to you."
Also, despite thinking that her age made her an exception on campus, Zenoz said she's met lots of non-traditional students like her, including her campus BF. "I think he 20-year friended me."
Zenoz plans to graduate from USC in the fall with a major in creative writing and a double minor in screenwriting and theater. "And I kept my promise, I have a 4.0 GPA," she said. "It just feels really awesome to be that happy."