04/18/2012 10:31 am ET Updated Jun 18, 2012

Making a Difference: April Is Community College Awareness Month

Did you know that April is Community College Awareness Month? Did you know that community colleges serve almost half of the undergraduate students in the United States, providing open access to postsecondary education? They truly are an important and vital role in the postsecondary education delivery system.

While most of us have grown up with community colleges in our backyards, they are a relatively new phenomenon in education, having evolved in the early part of the 20th century. They evolved because of an economic situation that was occurring globally. Leaders, locally, regionally and nationally, realized that a more skilled workforce was needed to address and keep the economic strength of the United States. At that time more than 75 percent of high school graduates were reluctant to go to college because of the distance from home. According to the American Association of Community Colleges' website,

During the same period, the country's rapidly growing public high schools were seeking new ways to serve their communities. It was common for them to add a teacher institute, manual learning (vocational education) division or citizenship school to the diploma program. The high school-based community college, as first developed at Central High School in Joliet, Ill. was the most successful type of addition.

It now stands and serves the greater community as Joliet Junior College. To paint a picture, the earliest community colleges were small, usually enrolling no more than 150 students. They, however, did offer a solid program academics and a variety of student activities. Another unique feature was that community colleges provided accessibility to women primarily through their leading role in preparing grammar school teachers.

I am the product of a community college -- Alpena Community College, located in northeast Michigan. Reluctantly I entered what was often referred to as a school offering the 13th grade throughout my high school class. How wrong the pundits and scoffers were! Alpena Community College, or ACC, was one of the best things that occurred in my life. It offered me classes relevant to my major, taught by professors and most importantly, allowed me to grow up! It truly prepared me for my journey to Michigan State University.

Because of community colleges, millions of students and adult learners are able to access education that often prepares them for the workplace or further education.

Community colleges serve often as the access point for education in a community or town and can also be a catalyst for economic development. Here are five tips or recommendations about community colleges and your way to celebrate as well as honor them this month:

• Make a point to visit your community college this month to learn about all its offerings; if you can't physically visit, check it out via its website
• Take a class as an adult learner at your community college; learning doesn't stop when you graduate or get a degree
• Offer your services at a community college; often there are places to volunteer, possibly classes to teach, etc.
• Make a financial donation to a community college; most have supporting foundations associated with them -- do some investigating
• Share information about the community college system with those who will be attending college soon; with the ever-escalating costs of college tuition, a community college might be a great option for many!

Bonus tip: Consider establishing a scholarship at your local community college; an annual gift of $250, $500 or $1,000 really does make a difference! I supported my community college through establishing a scholarship in my parent's name; it is the Robert and Shirley Dietlin Scholarship. It was really easy to do and now four years later, my family and I know we have made a difference in the lives of four students!

Community colleges are often a hidden gem in our towns and cities. Take steps today to learn more. By doing so you will be making a difference!