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Brian Becker Interview

"After spending a year attending community college, I returned to my alma mater to complete my degree. Immediately afterward, I began my professional journey at the U of I."

Brian Becker

Brian Becker is a proud alumnus of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, class of 2019. He currently serves as the assistant director for events, outreach and digital strategy at the Michael L. Jeffries Sr. Center for Access and Academic Success at Illinois.

Along with his full-time job, Brian is close to earning a second degree from Illinois, this one in the master's program in Education Policy, Organization and Leadership, where he is concentrating in higher education.

Tell us your path to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

The road to attaining my degree and pursuing graduate school was a long, rather windy ordeal, but I am proud to say that attending community college played a significant role. I grew up in Lake Villa, Illinois, so the College of Lake County was a stone’s throw away from my backyard. But after graduating from Grant Community High School with a substantial stack of advanced placement credits, as well as scholarships to attend the University of Illinois, I initially did not consider attending community college. I entered the U of I as a computer engineer major and as a first-generation student, a title I was not aware of at the time. The following two and a half years were filled with wonderful experiences, crushing defeats, and a whole range of emotions that led to me departing the U of I. After spending a year attending community college, I returned to my alma mater to complete my degree. Immediately afterward, I began my professional journey at the U of I.

What community college did you attend and why?

I attended the College of Lake County in Grayslake, Illinois, throughout my time and eventual departure from the U of I. Initially, I would take summer coursework to progress through my computer engineering curriculum and transfer the credits back to the U of I. However, after withdrawing from the U of I, I attended the College of Lake County full time for an academic year to reprioritize my trajectory, passions, and general sense of direction in my life. My ultimate goal was to eventually reenter Illinois, but I wanted to do so with a broadened perspective and greater grasp of the areas I wanted to pursue. I absolutely adored my time at the College of Lake County. My instructors were always passionate and often professionals in their field of study. I could ask questions about their line of work, build connections with their networks of colleagues, and meet some wonderful individuals from all walks of life in my classes.

Who were some individuals at College of Lake County who helped shape your success?

If I were to list the individuals that helped shape my success at community college, the names alone would take up the better part of a page! To name one in particular, my instructor for my criminal law course was singlehandedly one of the most influential individuals in my life, let alone community college. During my departure from the University of Illinois, I carried a great deal of shame, confusion, and anxiety as many perceived my leaving Illinois as wasted potential. I began to internalize all these feelings, which took a significant toll on my physical and mental health. I recall trying to quickly depart after class, as was my modus operandi at the time, and being stopped by this particular instructor who asked me, “Why are you here?” I was initially taken aback at such a direct and poignant question, but my professor quickly dissolved my panic by expressing concern for my well-being based on observations and how my work reflected a great deal of potential.

Having someone pause to recognize my internal struggle and genuinely try to help was not something I was accustomed to in my higher education experience. After a long but fruitful conversation, I began to feel connected to the institution and more open to exploring my options. The doors that felt fastened shut began to reveal themselves one by one, and I regained a sense of confidence in my ability to succeed.

I could list so many more wonderful community college experiences like this one. My time there allowed me to rebuild a sense of purpose and passion for learning.

How has attending a community college influenced your outlook on education and life?

Community college redefined my outlook on education by demystifying common misconceptions on what the experience is like and the opportunities afforded by it. College of Lake County was commonly referred to by the larger community as the “college of last chance.” And I'll admit, there was a negative connotation associated with not attending a four-year institution out of high school, so I deferred and prescribed to that popular opinion.

It wasn’t until I set foot into College of Lake Country and began taking coursework there that I began to realize these perceptions were baseless and downright false in many cases. The quality of material, the attentiveness of the instructors, and the overall experience was genuinely on par with what I had experienced at the U of I to that point, and often better in some cases. I felt empowered to approach my instructors and gain clarification on confusing material. I felt a greater sense of belonging since my peers were more social and engaged in the classroom.

But most important, I saw a passion for teaching and learning that was often absent in many of the spaces I was previously exposed to. The teachers were engaged and loved what they did, while many students were actively pursuing their careers and vocational tracks with a clear purpose.

Then there is all the wonderful perspective I gained from folks who were returning to higher education after starting families, careers, or whatever directions life had taken them. To me, community college is a uniquely incredible collection of opportunities and individuals that allows for exploration and advancement, whether that’s pursuing further education or jumpstarting a career.

How do you view community colleges as being institutions that provide equitable opportunities for students who are pursuing a postsecondary education?

Community colleges are fundamentally spaces of learning and exploration, often with a more approachable price tag. I believe one of the greatest challenges community colleges face is the negative perceptions attached to them, which are often fundamentally wrong in my opinion. Community colleges allow students who may be confused or uncertain about their trajectory to be exposed to a wealth of career paths, fields of study, and opportunities by professionals and instructors who are already actively involved in those areas. More important, those who opt to teach are often incredibly passionate about their fields, and I believe this translates into a positive classroom experience. To this day, I can firmly claim that some of my best classroom experiences and interactions took place at College of Lake County. More students should feel empowered to attend community college and benefit from the wealth of opportunities it has to offer.

How did your learning and overall experiences at a community college lead to your further course of study and current career?

My time at College of Lake Country allowed me the flexibility, space, and support to eventually complete my bachelor’s degree at Illinois. If not for that year at community college, I would not have met the wonderful individuals who encouraged my exploration and pushed me to complete my degree to pursue my career in student affairs. While my path was incredibly winding — a computer engineer to English major, with hundreds of twists in between  if not for these particular individuals I met at community college, I don’t know that I would have had the ability to make it through and achieve my potential. For that I am eternally grateful and hope to continue to spread the good word on my experience at College of Lake County, in order to help encourage students in the same boat to take that leap of faith and benefit from the wealth of opportunity it has to offer.

Tell us something fun about yourself.

I have two Cavalier King Charles Spaniels named Cody and Cookie, and my birthday is on Leap Day!