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Erin L. Castro Interview

Erin Castro and her family

"While attending community college was a critical part of my educational journey, I also think it’s important to be real about the transition to a four-year institution. My transfer experience was difficult."

Tell us about your background and your life growing up.

I am a proud, first-generation community college transfer student. I graduated from Sterling High School in Sterling, Illinois, and soon after my parents moved to Rockford, where they still reside. My sister is currently pursuing an MPH at Northwestern University. While Illinois feels like home, I’ve lived in Utah for over a decade. My partner and I have three wonderful kiddos (Emilio, Esperanza, and Elia) and a cozy cat named Otis.

What community college did you attend and why?

I attended Sauk Valley Community College in Illinois (hey, hey DIXON!) and Kirkwood Community College in Iowa. I attended Sauk Valley right out of high school because it was accessible and affordable. My parents weren’t in a financial position to support my tuition and fees and so I used Pell Grants and took out loans. I knew that I wanted to get a college degree; I just didn’t know how I was going to do it.

I moved to Iowa to attend Kirkwood Community College because, get this: I could take out a private loan. For a long time I was embarrassed to share this piece of information because it was a bit of a random move for me. But, I followed the money. I’ve since come to properly acknowledge my hustle as a skill, but one that I shouldn’t have needed to flex. Had the money been available in my own state, or if I had access to scholarships, I would maybe have an associate’s degree today [from Sauk Valley]. But, like so many students, I did not.

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

While attending community college was a critical part of my educational journey, I also think it’s important to be real about the transition to a four-year institution. My transfer experience was difficult. There is a story that I think back about and must laugh now, knowing what I know about vertical transfer. After a couple years at community colleges, I wanted to transfer to Southern Illinois University. I lived in northern Illinois and knew enough about choosing a four-year college that you were supposed to, at the very least, visit the campus. So, I asked my dad to drive six hours down to Carbondale with me so I could “visit the campus.” My dad worked during the week and so we drove down to SIU very early on a Sunday morning. Once we exited I-57, we followed the painted paws on the streets leading to campus and arrived to what you might expect a Sunday morning to feel like on a college campus. While the campus was pretty, it was void of people or activities or anything resembling the bustle of college. We spent about 45 minutes driving around the campus, including the beautiful campus lake, and then decided to head back home. We made no contact with the office of admissions or financial aid, or any unit officially connected to the university. We didn’t know we were supposed to or that we could. 

I hold on to these memories because, while I knew I should do a campus visit when thinking about transfer, I had no idea of what that visit should entail. Nor did my father.

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

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that I would not be where I am today without community colleges. I wasn’t the smartest student, but I worked hard and was ambitious. I took the ACT three times, hoping to earn a score that would grant me admission to the University of Illinois. I didn’t take any prep classes or hire tutors to help me earn a higher score between takes; I didn’t know that these were even options. Instead, I just tried and tried again, and paid for it each time. I think it’s important to note, too, that I did all of this independently.

I never earned that magic score. So, if it weren’t for community colleges, I am uncertain I would have had an opportunity to thrive.

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

I currently serve as associate dean for college access and community engagement for undergraduate education at the University of Utah. I have spent the last decade as a scholar, researcher, and practitioner studying and creating college access and postsecondary pathways for underserved communities.

What do you like about living in Utah?

The people, hands down. I get to work with one of my best friends whom I met working at OCCRL, Dr. Jason Taylor. Former EPOL faculty member Larry Parker is my valiant department chair and Wanda Pillow just stepped down as chair of gender studies. While we didn’t know each other during graduate school, I also get to work with Dr. Paméla Cappas-Toro and Dr. Andy Eisen. All three of us worked with the Education Justice Project at Illinois and then found each other after graduation. Ten years later, Paméla and Andy moved to Utah to help stand up a national center dedicated to prison education research and leadership. It’s a dream team.

Is there anything else you'd like to add?

The biggest thing that I keep in mindthat I learned from growing at community colleges and graduate school at Illinoisis that we must invest in the potential of people. We must. And this means taking risks. It also means that not everything is going to work out; but the imperative is to try. In my current administrative position, I oversee our access portfolio, which includes prison education for adults and children, foster youth programming, outreach to native communities, and related access efforts. What can I do to reduce the structural burdens that potential students will encounter, and how can I make these changes long lasting for the institution beyond my time here?