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One of my favorite things to do as a journalist is go talk to strangers.

For my story on the crunch on community colleges, I headed over to City College downtown to chat up students about how budget cuts impacted them. Here are some of their stories:

• Michelle Ramirez, 21, is trying to get enough criminal justice credits to join the Marines with a higher rank. But because classes are packed, she’s had to enroll at Mesa College to get two classes she needs. That’s an hour and a half away on the bus and the trolley. Her days are a blur between working at the YMCA at the mornings and shuttling between classes all day.

“It’s hard. You’re lucky to get on a waitlist,” Ramirez said.

• Bryan Sanchez, 22, does surrealist paintings and is majoring in fine arts. He dreams of transferring to an art institute in San Francisco. Sanchez struggled to figure out what he wanted to do, changing majors several times. He’s not sure how far he is from graduating. “Maybe two years?” he said.

Trying to muscle his way into classes as spaces shrink has made each semester more stressful, Sanchez said. He’s never sure if he should go ahead and buy the textbook and do the homework for a class he might not get space in. Summer classes have now been canceled. “I’m getting pushed back again,” he said.

• Moniqua Smith, 30, dropped out of college more than a decade ago. After working retail for years, she decided she wanted a more of a career than a job, and came back to college to become a counselor. She’d like to transfer to UCSD someday. When summer classes were canceled, Smith was shocked.

She’s been rethinking whether to stick with community college or try the University of Phoenix or National University to finish up sooner. “I’m still going to do what I have to do,” Smith said. “But I’m disappointed. I’m disappointed that education is a thing they choose to cut.”

• Arturo Adame, 21, wants to be a cameraman, maybe even a movie director. He got into San Diego State, but has struggled with math so much that he ended up taking a leave of absence to finish up his math classes at community college. Adame said this is his third time taking his math class.

His story illustrates how students who struggle in the four-year universities can end up coming back to the community college, putting more demand on the schools. “San Diego State isn’t accepting everyone from the local area,” Adame said. “Now students aren’t going to get into City either.”

• Audrey Powell, 23, wants to get a master’s degree in forensic anthropology. Her goal is to transfer to UCSD after finishing two years at City College. Going out of town isn’t an option because she has kids and relies on her dad for help. They split the rent. When her car broke down, he paid to fix it.

“If I didn’t have that support, I couldn’t go here,” she said.

Powell has been upset by the cuts, including eliminating summer classes. But juggling classes, kids and a job at Domino’s Pizza have made it harder to speak out. “I could go to the protests, but I have to work,” she said.

I plan to keep following this issue — and I’m hoping to check in with these five students in the future. What are your community college stories? Please email me with your thoughts and tips.

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5665 and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/emilyschoolsyou.

Emily Alpert

Emily Alpert was formerly the education reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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