Early on in my SLCC presidency, I was asked to speak at the Salt Lake Rotary Club on the value of a community college education. After my remarks, a woman, smartly dressed in a St. John’s suit, came up to shake my hand. She leaned in and whispered: “You know, my grandson went to SLCC. He had a great experience.” I wanted to ask: “Why are you whispering this? You should be shouting it from the mountain tops.” Sadly, this happened more than once.

Ten years later, I remain unapologetic about being an affordable, open-access and welcoming-to-all college. While our students come from all walks of life — returning missionaries, veterans, mothers returning to school, concurrent students on a fast-track to a four-year degree — about half of our students are first in their families to attend college, and many of our students come from low-income backgrounds. Access to SLCC is particularly transformative for these students — it may be their only opportunity into higher education.

Our students’ stories are what have kept me centered on what truly matters. Their stories are full of grit, determination and hope. Their lived experiences are what compel me to speak up about the essential value of education — the real story that sometimes gets lost in the social and financial landscape and political rancor.

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Stories like Joyce who, along with three siblings, was raised by a single mother and wasn’t really planning on college — she just didn’t think it was an option for her. Then in high school, a teacher encouraged her to apply to SLCC’s PACE program. This four-year individualized mentorship program, now in six high schools, prepares first-generation and/or low-income students for college and ultimately a six-semester scholarship to SLCC. Flash forward, Joyce is now SLCC’s student body president and will graduate this spring with an associate degree in business. She plans to transfer to either the University of Utah or Westminster University.

Many of our students choose SLCC because it is affordable and accessible, but they also choose it because they feel comfortable and welcome here. Our prospective student outreach and retention data clearly outlines the incredible power and importance of belonging. Students’ battles with academic and social confidence are very real: Do I belong here? Am I college material?

I’ve learned that you must be intentional about signaling to all types of students that they do indeed belong in college. Whether their doubts are based on income levels, religion, gender, race, ethnicity, veteran status or differing abilities, marginalized populations need to see themselves welcome in higher education. We’ve learned that many students need reassurance that “Yes, you do belong on this campus.” A college or university can be an intimidating landscape.

If your path started at SLCC, chances are you worked while you went to college like 80% of our students (many full time). No one just handed you your education; you earned it. That fact alone speaks to the strong work ethic, drive and smart financial choices you bring to your decision making (80% of our students graduate with little to no debt). If you were the first in your family to attend college, your courage and willingness to navigate and master something big and new speaks to your resilience and ability to problem solve and succeed.

SLCC graduates bring these intrinsic characteristics into their families and workplaces; they are woven into the fabric of our communities and help fuel Utah’s economic engine. You would be surprised how many of those you associate with got their start at SLCC. After all, 80% of our graduates end up working and living in Utah.

When I’m speaking as president or just engaging in everyday life, those around me share their connection to the community college: nurses, mechanics, teachers, researchers, architects, filmmakers, engineers, electricians, PhD students, dental hygienists. It lights me up when I hear their higher education path started at SLCC and they had a positive and often, transformative experience.

These outcomes and experiences should not be shared in a whisper. They should be shared in job interviews, in LinkedIn profiles and in your community circles. Speak up and tell your story. The real story.

Deneece G. Huftalin is the president of Salt Lake Community College. She will retire from her 10-year tenure as president this May. To support SLCC students from all backgrounds with scholarships and support services please consider donating on Thursday, Feb. 15, SLCC’s annual Giving Day.