When Mark W. Vernoy, PhD, took a position teaching at a community college as his first job after graduate school, his graduate school professors weren't pleased.
"They all thought, 'Maybe he'll just settle for that while he waits for a real job to come along,'" remembers Vernoy. But Vernoy has been there ever since, 31 years and counting.
Today he's professor of psychology and dean of social and behavioral sciences at Palomar College in San Marcos, Calif. He appreciates the diversity of his students and his colleagues. And he has taken advantage of the time and flexibility offered by community college teaching to do research and write two popular textbooks. "I really love being at a community college," he says.
Like Vernoy's professors, psychology as a whole often overlooks the contributions that community colleges make to the field. But that's a mistake, say Vernoy and others. Community college professors provide what may be the public's first exposure to psychology. They play a crucial role in preparing the next generation of psychologists and diversifying the psychology workforce. And they influence future workforces in the health fields by providing courses for students who pursue careers in nursing and health-related professions. Recent data show that more than 50 percent of new nurses and the majority of other new health-care workers are educated at community colleges. Community college professors also contribute to the professional development of teachers of psychology by organizing teaching conferences and writing textbooks that reflect the rich diversity within community colleges.
According to APA President-elect Alan E. Kazdin, PhD, the John M. Musser Professor of Psychology and Child Psychiatry at Yale University, community colleges are psychology's front lines.
"The viability of our field comes from the number of people who know what psychology's contributions are, and community college professors have greater access to the public," says Kazdin. "And if we can have stimulating professors at that level, it will turn more people into our field."
Spreading the word
Psychology professors at community colleges reach huge numbers of students, says Robin Hailstorks, PhD, director of precollege and undergraduate programs and associate executive director of APA's Education Directorate. Almost half of all undergraduates are enrolled in community colleges, she says. And many of those students are taking psychology classes.
"Community colleges offer more sections of introductory psychology courses than four-year institutions collectively," she says.
That's certainly true in California, says Vernoy, noting that more students take psych classes from community colleges than from the California State or University of California system.
Those students aren't necessarily psychology majors. At Palomar, for instance, students who want to transfer to four-year institutions can meet one of their general education breadth requirements by taking psychology. There's a psychological and social services certificate program and a drug and alcohol counseling program that practitioners often use as professional development. Even students from vocational programs take psychology.
"We have students in our classes who want to be entrepreneurs," Vernoy says. "If they're going to be running a business, they're going to need to understand people."
By "pushing psychology out to the general public that way," says Vernoy, he and his colleagues are expanding the number of people who understand and appreciate what psychology does.
Community college psychology professors' influence extends beyond full-time students, adds Patricia Puccio, EdD, a psychology professor at College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, Ill., and organizer of the annual Midwest Institute for Students and Teachers of Psychology.
When local residents want to take a class just for fun, she says, community colleges provide an affordable, convenient option, and psychology is a popular choice. Parents with young children, for example, often take a psychology class to better understand their children's development.
Puccio enjoys the challenge of teaching people what may be the only psychology class they'll ever take.
"I've got one chance to teach them what psychology is, besides Dr. Phil on 'Oprah,'" she says. "My goal is to let them know what psychology is, why it's important to have scientific evidence and where to go looking for it."
Community college faculty may also have closer relationships with the media than their counterparts at four-year institutions, says Puccio. When the local newspaper needs a psychology expert, she says, they often call faculty at the community college.
"There's a community college in every community; there's not a university in every community," she notes. "We're the face of psychology."
Diversifying the pipeline
Of course, some students in those introductory courses do go on to become psychologists. One example is Jerry L. Rudmann, PhD, a professor emeritus of psychology at Irvine Valley College in Irvine, Calif., and executive director of Psi Beta, the national honor society for psychology students at community and junior colleges.
Originally hoping to become an electronics technician, Rudmann began his education with a certificate program at Mount San Antonio College in Walnut, Calif. But then he took an introductory psychology class, and his life changed.
"I fell in love with psychology," Rudmann remembers. "I just thought it was so interesting that you could understand and explain people's behavior based upon research."
Driven by that new passion, he transferred to California State University at Fullerton and earned a doctorate from the University of Southern California. He recently retired after 30 years of community college teaching, although he's still an adjunct professor at Irvine Valley.
As far as Rudmann knows, there are no data on the number of psychologists who begin their careers at community colleges. But he knows he's not alone, he says, noting that he often encounters psychologists-including prominent ones-who got their start at community colleges. The American Association of Community Colleges' website is a good place to find information on prominent individuals who began their educational careers at community colleges.
What's more, community colleges help diversify the psychology pipeline. says Sandra L. Ladd, who notes that one-third of students who graduated last year from the University of California, Berkeley, started out at a community college. Ladd is founder and executive co-director of APA's Diversity Project 2000 and Beyond, an initiative that aims to increase the number of minority psychology majors and help minority community college students transfer to four-year institutions.
"Community college students reflect the cultural, racial, geographic and social richness of our country," says Ladd, a psychology professor at West Valley Community College in Saratoga, Calif. "Community college students are the best resource possible for diversifying the educational pipeline in psychology."
At community colleges, she says, students are largely low-income and ethnic and racial minorities. Many are the first in their families to attend college. They're also highly motivated, says Ladd.
"We know that community college students who enter university perform as well as students who enter university as freshmen," she says. "Their grade-point averages are equivalent, and their graduation rates are equivalent."
To Mark Vernoy, that diversity is a huge part of why he loves community college teaching. For a couple of years in the late 1980s, he served as a visiting professor at the University of California in Irvine, where he earned his doctorate. The first thing he noticed was the lack of diversity.
"The teaching environment is so much richer when you have that diversity in your classes, and the classroom is a little more fun because of it," he says. "For me, a community college turned out to be the perfect place."
Rebecca A. Clay is a writer in Washington, D.C.