Over the last few months I’ve gotten many, many emails from potential design students inquiring about whether community college is the right fit for them. I’ve lightly touched on the subject before but I want to go into more detail today as to why community college was the best choice for me to continue my education.
I’m pretty passionate about community college because not only was my experience amazing but it got me to exactly where I needed to be in my career without compromising my budget, timeline or goals.
My path to community college
In 2005, after wrapping up a degree in Business Administration, I just wasn’t content. I knew it was because as much as I loved business, I felt a nagging void in my creativity. I’d always dreamed of being an artist but I didn’t think it was a practical path I could earn a living at right away so I’d chosen the so-called safe route. But by 2005, I’d discovered graphic design on a more serious level and I wanted in. Everything clicked: I liked type and layouts and grids a whole lot more than painting and sketching. I’d found my calling.
I did some research online and made appointments with potential colleges. Every time, I kept running into a wall, both with class schedules and cost. I lived on my own and needed to work full-time to support myself, yet the classes would often have huge gaps of time between them, scattered throughout the day. I wanted in but I couldn’t figure out how to make it work with my retail hours.
It all came crashing down when I made an appointment to meet the head of a graphic design program at a university and he scolded me for turning up early (?!). Then, after a glance at my transcripts, he pointed out that I was missing an art history class that was required. Since it was only offered once a year, I’d have to sit out completely. I begged for a workaround — could I still enter the program and then make up that class when it came around the following year? He wouldn’t budge and his tone was condescending. I was beside myself; why would I ever hand over a huge sum of money to someone who couldn’t even treat me with compassion and respect during a 15 minute meeting?
The more I thought about that meeting as I walked back to the bus stop, the more I wondered whether I even needed another four year degree. Both my boyfriend at the time and our roommate had earned their design degrees from community college and were extremely skilled. They both had full-time design jobs, even without fancy credentials. Maybe I could do that, too.
I then remembered that there was a limited entry graphic design program at the community college I’d spent my first few years at (I’d found out about it long after I’d graduated).
I looked up the number and called them up right there, on the spot. The head of the program, Chris Maier answered right away. I explained that I already had a 4 year degree. Did I need another to be a graphic designer? I also didn’t have a lot of time or money and needed a flexible schedule (no, I wasn’t asking for a miracle, but pretty close to it).
She explained that the class sizes were very small and program was comprised of back-to-back classes two to three days a week. If finding a job was my goal post-graduation, she assured me she could help. And later, I would find that it all held true. I was 25 by the time Fall 2006 rolled around and my goal was to be a full-time designer by 27. I’d had more time to research and I knew for sure that the program was exactly where I needed to be in order to make that happen.
Things moved along quickly from there. With only two years to learn about design, the projects were fast-paced and everything had a purpose; there was no time for filler content. I loved every minute of it. And funny enough, the girls seated on each side of me were in a similar situation as I was: both had Bachelor’s degrees in completely different subjects and were back in our program for design. It felt good to know that I wasn’t the only one in class that had done a 180 to start over in a different field because even though many people around me had the best intentions, they definitely questioned my move.
By this time, my brother had gotten into the cool art school I’d always dreamed of going to. The jealousy I felt quickly subsided when I realized that my entire program cost half of just his first year. By my second semester, I landed a project designing album art for Virgin Records and that check was the same amount as my first year of school. I’d broken even.
Once I’d finished that first year, I walked up to my teacher on the last day of class and told her where my dream internship would be if I could choose from anywhere. She had a contact there, and the next day, we were in touch. It took me the entire summer to get in but by the time year two of my program rolled in, I had a paid internship at a design studio in Portland. A week after I graduated, I had my first full time design job. Within a year of that, I was doing freelance for Forever 21 and had designed a line of goggles through Smith Optics.
Having a two year degree for design never hindered me in any way. When I was asked about it in interviews, I would explain that I already had a four year degree in a different subject and I’d wanted to break into the industry as quickly as possible. It was as simple as that.
Instead of worrying about whether there was a prestigious institution stamped across my diploma, I put all of my time and effort into improving the quality of my portfolio and learning on the job.
Can you really learn everything in two years?
When you only have two years, of course you’re not going to learn everything there is to know about design. Design is a massive subject and even with six years of professional experience now, I still feel like I’m only scratching the surface.
When it comes to design, you end up learning so much on the job that any perceived gaps you have are filled in quickly. For instance, I didn’t know much about print production. But then, I did a freelance gig at a studio that ended up lasting for over a year. Nearly all their work was heavily production-based and though the learning curve was high, I eventually broke through. It just takes time.
Community college won’t be for everyone. And if you have a big college fund set aside, by all means live it up! But for me, it was the perfect choice. I have absolutely no regrets and the education I gained in two short years got me to exactly where I needed to go. And remember, there are other paths you can take — once you’re done with the two-year degree and have all the basics out of the way, you can always transfer into a university or art school and continue on (many of my classmates did).
I had friends that went to art school and I sometimes used to wish that I could have had that experience, too. But to be completely honest, the only reason my design loans are paid off now is because I chose the community college route. I definitely didn’t want massive debt hanging over my head as I moved into the next chapter of my life.
When it comes to college, always weigh your options carefully, meet with multiple schools and understand what you’re signing up for. Community college is something that’s not talked about a whole lot as an option when it comes to graphic design so I just want to remind you that a quality education doesn’t have to be solely attached to a huge price tag.