07/15/2014 02:26 pm ET Updated Sep 14, 2014

How Professors Help Community College Students Transfer

Around 75 percent of community college students who enroll in a community college report that their primary goal is to transfer and ultimately earn a bachelor's degree.

Unfortunately, according to the Community College Survey of Student Engagement fewer than half of those students currently reach that goal.

Santa Ana College in California is trying to change that.

Each year students at Santa Ana College submit nominations for professors who have been instrumental in supporting and inspiring them to transfer to a university. All professors nominated are recognized, and the professor who gets the most nominations is given the Transfer Advocate Award and honored at a transfer student celebration.

According to the college's Transfer Center Coordinator, Martha Vargas, the student body at Santa Ana College is "primarily composed of first generation, low income, and at-risk student populations, many of whom are the first to attend college and transfer to the university."

This seems to be becoming the new normal, and many higher education institutions are trying to figure out how to serve these students. Fifteen years ago Santa Ana College decided to start by recognizing the professors whom students say are making the biggest difference.

For students like Jazmin who attended Santa Ana, transferring from community college to a university can feel impossible if not for the encouragement of a professor.

Jazmin was one of the students who nominated this year's Transfer Advocate Award winner, Professor Angelina Veyna. Jazmin shares how visiting Veyna during her office hours was crucial to helping her see the possibilities for her life: "she [Veyna] asked me what I wanted to do for my career, what my dreams and aspirations were. She was the first professor to ask me this. I was surprised and she wanted to help me get there. She was the one to care for my future."

This too is my story. In my speeches I always share the moment when a professor wrote "see me" on a paper, and then in his office preceded to ask me what I wanted to do with my life and encouraged me towards getting there.

I have yet to meet a single successful community college graduate who cannot name "that one professor" who made all the difference.

If we really want any chance at helping low-income and first generation students attain a college degree -- if we really want to keep the American Dream alive -xzi- then we must ensure these conversations happen.

One way to start is to learn from those who are already doing this well.

Angelina Veyna is a professor of History and Ethnic Studies and has been teaching at Santa Ana College for 22 years. She is incredibly humble about her teaching style, but it was obvious to me why students voted her as the Transfer Advocate Award winner this year:

1. She relates to her students and tells them her story: When I asked what motivates her she expressed a real connection with her students' experiences: "My educational experience is very much like the experiences of the students I teach. My parents were Mexican immigrants with a very limited education. I was a first-generation student. I felt lost when I first attended UC Irvine and had no idea what a unit or graduate degree meant. My writing skills were very limited throughout my college life...I also share my trials and tribulations with the class; I share my UC Irvine and UCLA experiences with them. "

One thing every professor has in common with students is that they have successfully completed college. For some students, that professor might be the first person he or she has ever met with a graduate degree.

Personal stories about the ups and downs faced in college can go a long way, especially with first generation students for whom college life was never a casual topic of dinner conversation.

2. She's motivated to pay it forward: "I feel a need to work. I'm not a 'workaholic' but there is lots of work to do. I come from the Chicano generation that strongly believes that we must give back 'to the community.' I feel a strong sense of responsibility to help the students I have, just as others influenced my life."

3. She gives incentive to use office hours: "I do assign three extra points to each student to come and introduce themselves to me in my office. I believe this helps set up a relationship with them."

Throughout my travels to community colleges across the country I've found this trend among very effective and enthusiastic community college professors. They understand the importance of encouraging their students to visit with them, even if that means making it a grade.

Most students, even high achievers, are initially terrified of college professors. It took a professor to write "see me" on a paper for me to walk into a professor's office.

4. She tries to engage students with her personality: "I also do not sit still to teach, I don't think anyone should because students need to be interested and alive in class...I also try to integrate some humor into the class, and I share my passion for learning. Just as they, I still want to learn (at the age of 60) very much. I also share my hobbies with them (my love of art and travel) and simply try to encourage them to keep going.

"Some of our students will never hear words of encouragement from their parents, similar to my experience, so I feel that they constantly have to be told that they will be able to achieve their goals... they just have to have patience and persist."

If you want to understand how to help low-income and first generation students graduate, read that again. Notice the subtleties. She shares her life. Her passions. She relates to them as a learner, not just a teacher. She understands how life-changing a bit of encouragement can be for a student to whom society subtly says "people like you" aren't college material.

5. She incorporates many aspects of transfer readiness into her history course: "[I try to] familiarize students with college culture, help them develop writing skills which they will use their entire life, teach them the course material...and be there for them when necessary -- sometimes to not only listen to academic challenges, but also personal issues. I sincerely believe that as a professor we are here to serve our students."

The professors who teach content well and inspire students to grow in their aspirations are the professors who make the American Dream possible for so many first generation and community college students.

When I worked in a community college students popped their head into my office every day with questions ranging from "where can I find the L building" to "how do I help my family understand why studying is more important than working the family business right now?"

That's what Veyna means when she says "personal issues" and "serve our students." She meets students where they are, but pushes them to go further.

Because of Veyna's support, Jazmin recently graduated with her A.A. from Santa Ana College and will begin her junior year at UCLA this fall. Her major? Why, the subject taught by her favorite professor of course - history.

Jazmin says about Veyna, "She personally affected my life because she knew where I was coming from. [She made it seem possible to] be a Latina...and get an education and reach high... she is a role model and makes me want to be successful because she has done it. She has changed my future."