As part of this year’s series, we are pleased to introduce Alex Dolan Balin who will transfer to Claremont McKenna College, one of the nation’s very best institutions of higher education. At Claremont, Alex will study Politics, Economics, and Philosophy. A math tutor in our Library Learning Resource Center, Alex also contributed to and benefited from our Honors Program.
#CYProud: Alex Dolan Balin, Cypress to Claremont McKenna College
- Origin — what is your back story (hometown, high school, personal story…)
I am a 26 year old, born in Long Beach, CA. I tested out of high school in 2007 in order to enter the labor force. As you might guess, that was a mistake. The recession forced me to work low-wage jobs, and hiked the tuition of college out of my reach. After seven years spent unable to get a good enough job or save up enough to start college, I found an opportunity to work on Catalina Island. Though I was only paid $5 an hour, the company took care of my living expenses, e.g. rent, food, transportation, etc. This enabled me to spend my whole paycheck as I chose, and I chose to save enough to buy a laptop and enroll in online classes at Santa Monica College (SMC). My first semester was 12 units of online classes–that was also a mistake. Online classes are far more taxing than in-class courses, as the professors can link to any online resource and call it “required reading.” They also are much more difficult to communicate with effectively, as the nuances of confusion are far easier to iron out in-person than over email. All of this, piled on top of a shotty island Internet connection, plus working more than forty hours of physical labor a week, proved to be a bad strategy for academic success. I therefore had to move back to the continent, to my hometown of Long Beach, to continue my academic career.
- Why Cypress?
As I just mentioned, I started college at SMC. Once enrolled in physical-classroom courses, I started to do well academically. After taking Statistics and getting an A in the class, I was invited by the college to work as a mathematics tutor. I told this to a friend of mine, who told me that Cypress College was also looking for math tutors. I applied to both schools, and Cypress’ offer was more compelling. While exploring the campus, I saw a brochure for the Honors Program. This was pivotal.The Honors Program at SMC has a unit cap, both maximum and minimum, and within one semester I missed both. I asked the Cypress College Honors Counselor, Penny Gabourie, about their unit cap. Her answer was, “What? What cap? We don’t have a unit cap. What’s your GPA?” I told her. “Okay, you’re in.” That’s what brought me to Cypress as a student.
I like strategizing, so I calculated what I needed to finish the Honors Program as quickly as possible. My major at SMC was in Communications, but the courses I took for that major at SMC weren’t offered at Cypress. After crunching the numbers, I determined that another interest of mine, Political Science, was the fastest way to finish the Honors and AA requirements. Following that plan I finished the required 18 Honors units and took all the classes needed for an AA-T in Political Science in two semesters. To do this I needed to take two courses at Fullerton College, so on Monday and Wednesday nights I took two Honors Political Science courses with Jodi Balma my second semester. Though the commute was routinely exhausting, it was the required course of action for my goal, and now that it’s done it’s easy to see how much I benefited from that sacrifice of comfort to propel my academic pursuits.
The reason the Honors Program was so important to me were the options it opened up for potential transfer universities. The whole purpose of coming to a Community College, if you’re not pursuing a vocational program, is transferring to the school you really want to go. My purpose then becomes making myself the most competitive applicant to the largest amount of quality universities. If you finish it, the Honors Program opens up a lot of special agreements with some of the best universities, including two of the Claremont Colleges–which were always my dream schools. I expected finishing the program; I did not expect being accepting to Claremont-McKenna College. I am certain this was entirely due to finishing the Honors Program and serving as the Vice President of the Honors Club.
- @Cypress — what have you been involved with? How has your path unfolded?
Outside of my studies and being the Vice President of the Honors Club, a lot of my time outside of my studies has been spent working. As an independent student, who underwent my entire college career without parental oversight, influence, or financial support, I have to work to make the money to buy the books and supplies I needed for this process. When the laptop I bought on Catalina Island was drowned in pickle juice by a former coworker, I had to take out a loan to buy the components to build a computer that I could rely on for the remainder my college career, which I anticipate being still a very long time.That notwithstanding, I was fortunate enough to find work on campus in the Learning Resource Center (LRC) as a mathematics tutor. In that capacity I was able to pilot a tutoring program in the Cypress College Veterans Resource Center. I’m someone who truly values the courage and sacrifices our servicemen and servicewomen have made, so I could not have been happier to be of help. I ended up assisting the front desk of the LRC when they became unexpectedly short-staffed partway through the spring 2016 semester. Outside of campus, I work on the weekends for FarmBox LA in the departments of delivery service and construction/maintenance. I’m looking forward to the summer when I will be designing and building a new front counter desk for that company in the morning and tutoring math in the evening.
In the little time that remains, I play guitar and sing with my sister, Marley Balin, and my dear friend, Karen Peters, where we play folk music and sing three-part harmony. I also value the time I have between classes where I can debate import issues with the friends I’ve made here, like Saed Hussein. If I had more time I would have been very active with the Debate Team at Cypress College and I encourage all those who can to become a member and develop their dialectic abilities.
- Faculty or staff that have helped you get where you are today.
Kathryn Sonne and Penny Gabourie have been immeasurably valuable for making Cypress College a step-up in my college career. Treisa Cassens, Janelle Salinas, Ally Rocha, Tania Miller, and Gonzalo Arenas have been an awesome force in the LRC. The professors which need special recognition are Melanie Nabahani, Bryan Seiling, and Jodi Balma; those of you reading this who are looking for English, History, or Political Science classes, you need to take these professors. Seriously. Their classes ask a little more of you as a student, but they make it very clear what it takes to do well in their class. The skills you learn and develop in their classroom make every other class easier. But more than that, their style of teaching is so compelling that I end up telling stories about their classes as the highlight of my time at Cypress.
- Post Cypress — what do you hope to do in the near term? What are your plans at Claremont-McKenna College?
In the fall I will be attending Claremont-McKenna College. After I my time there, which I intend to experience to the fullest extent, I hope to move onto Law School. After Law School I will look to serve my country as a Judge Advocate General (JAG) in the military.
- Longer-Term Vision — what do you aspire to?
Though it’s difficult to anticipate anything beyond that, I hope to transition from military service to public service. In my admittedly limited education, I perceive a lack of veterans in legislation. Because I cannot convince veterans who have already sacrificed so much to make the sacrifice of private gains for public service, though I believe they would be an extremely valuable participant in representative government, I will choose to pursue this line of reasoning. Cliché as it is, there is a value to this saying, especially in government: If you want something done, you gotta do it yourself.
- What are you most proud of?
Entirely on my own, I overcame drug addiction and put myself through college to a high enough standard that convinced Claremont-McKenna to extend me an invitation to attend their university. I will be the first person in my family to earn a bachelor’s degree. After all of this is over, I hope to be another name in a long American tradition of being a Rag-to-Riches story, using my wealth to invest in the nation’s commonwealth.
- Anything else you’d like to add…
I want to address the student not sure about college: Go look up what happens when you don’t become educated. You will likely work in the lower levels of a company, you will likely make less money, you will probably have a harder time getting out of and staying out of poverty, you probably won’t afford your own house, and all of this will make you suffer. Needlessly. On top of this, our future is probably not going to be kind to those of us who didn’t finish college. Just look up the likely outcomes of income inequality, the growing state and federal debts, the advent of automation and artificial intelligence, and the increasing political inability to address issues like these. We live in a time of serious problems, and we need serious people to solve them. Sure, a few people who didn’t finish college will have an effect on all of these problems, but they will be an extreme exception to the general rule. Those who finish college will work the best jobs and make the biggest impact on society. Don’t gamble on your future. Finish Make transferring from Cypress your primary purpose and you will open doors for you and your family. There are serious problems and we need serious people. You want to help? Get ready–get educated.