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Peter Bahr Interview

Peter Bahr and his family


"Nothing about my start in life or my early college experiences hinted at where I would be now or what I would be doing. In fact, I often feel out of place in the academy because my background is so different from many of my peers."

Tell us about your background and your life growing up.

I took a circuitous route to where I am today, but it proved to be a formative journey. My family was ambivalent about attending college, and I graduated from a rural high school in which attending college was anything but normative. I was fortunate to secure an Air Force ROTC scholarship to study civil engineering at the University of Southern California. Despite good grades, though, I left college after the first year due to what I now would describe as culture shock and a lack of integration into the college environment.

I found my way to a job at a wastewater (sewage) treatment plant, starting as a part-time engineering aide and then securing a full-time position as a treatment plant operator.

While I was working, I enrolled in a local community college, taking classes during the day and working night shifts at the treatment plant.  I wandered through four years of college, completing several associate degrees related to my work such as chemistry and water and wastewater technology.  But I always had it in mind to transition into a different line of work all together, something closer to my interests in understanding human behavior. I just wasn’t sure how to get there.

On a casual word of advice from my supervisor at the treatment plant that a bachelor’s degree was the next step, I worked my way through the confusing process of transferring to California State University, Sacramento. I had to commute an hour each way to attend the university while continuing to work a full-time night shift at the treatment plan. To say it was exhausting is an understatement; I had trouble keeping my eyes open in my classes. But it was no different from what millions of other students across the country have to do to get a college degree. In the end, I made it across the finish line, earning a bachelor’s degree in criminology.

"Unsure of what to do next, I again followed a casual word of advice—this time from my statistics instructor."

Unsure of what to do next, I again followed a casual word of advice—this time from my statistics instructor—to pursue a graduate degree in sociology, which was a subject that I enjoyed for its insights into human behaviors, choices, and interactions. Having no clue about how graduate-level admissions decisions are made or how student funding works in full-time graduate programs, I applied to just one graduate program, the M.A./Ph.D. program in sociology at the University of California, Davis. I chose it because it was closest to my job at the treatment plant.

Thankfully I was admitted, or else I probably wouldn’t have had this opportunity to share my story with the OCCRL community. After the first year of graduate school, I finally left my job at the treatment plant to focus on my studies and my work as a research assistant. I discovered I had a passion and knack for research, which led me to a research appointment with the California Department of Education, and then with the California Community Colleges Chancellor's Office.

When I graduated, I accepted an assistant professor appointment in sociology at Wayne State University.  I was there for five years, and then I landed my current faculty appointment in the University of Michigan’s Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education, where I have been for almost 15 years.

What community college did you attend and why?

I attended Solano Community College because it was the community college that was closest to where I lived and worked.

Who were some individuals at your community college that helped shape your success and how did they do it?

Anne Bevilacqua was my first sociology instructor. She probably doesn’t remember me, but I took her introductory course in sociology. It was outstanding and hooked me on sociology—the field in which I ultimately earned my Ph.D. 

In addition to being an effective teacher, she took time outside of class to answer my questions about how the hierarchy of postsecondary degrees —associate’s degree, bachelor’s degree, master’s degree, doctorate—is related to work and professional opportunities. These things seem obvious to me now, but I was completely in the dark about such matters at the time.

I hope she finds this web page at some point and is pleased about the enduring influence she has had on me and, no doubt, many others.

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

Nothing about my start in life or my early college experiences hinted at where I would be now or what I would be doing. In fact, I often feel out of place in the academy because my background is so different from many of my peers. I don’t know many faculty—in fact, I don’t know any—who put themselves through school by working as a “turd herder,” as we treatment-plant operators jokingly referred to ourselves, or any other blue-collar occupation for that matter.

It’s this out of placeness that points to both the incredible potential of community colleges and the extent to which that potential has not been fully achieved. That I’m here is a miracle; that I’m still out of place says that there is more work to do. So, I’m putting my shoulder to the wheel to do what I can to make the path clearer and the journey easier for others.

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

Education is the lifeblood of our country. Neither our democratic republic nor our economy can run without an advanced educational system to teach successive generations. Individuals who don’t have a college education are increasingly marginalized from meaningful participation in the workforce and at the mercy of unscrupulous organizations and individuals.

Community colleges are the most accessible postsecondary institutions in the U.S. in terms of (wide) geographic dispersion, (low) cost, (minimal) admission standards, and (flexible) enrollment options. They truly are both democracy’s college and the economy’s college. They serve nearly anyone and everyone who seeks to enroll, and they offer the broad base of general education needed for civic engagement, applied career and technical education leading to employment and a family-sustaining income, and a transfer launchpad into more advanced levels of educational attainment, as well as myriad educational services for English-as-a-second-language learners, participants in adult education, students needing to beef up their basic skills in math and writing and more. 

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

I mentioned I worked at the California Community Colleges Chancellor's Office while I was in graduate school. My research for the Chancellor’s Office drew heavily on the system-wide, student transcript-level, administrative database. My work revolved around examining patterns of characteristics, goals, choices, and outcomes of millions of community college students in the state. Emerging findings from my work opened my eyes to the fact that my seemingly idiosyncratic college experiences—being adrift in an educational environment with minimal guidance and few signposts, balancing adult responsibilities with college attendance, not fully grasping the connections between schooling and long-term career options, encountering obstacles in the structural disconnection between career and technical education programs and general education programs, choosing courses inefficiently and accumulating unnecessary credits and costs, navigating an overly complicated transfer process, and so on—were not unique to me but, instead, troublingly normative. This insight motivated my dissertation research on students’ enrollment, progress, and outcomes in developmental education, and it continues to exert an important influence on my research today.

"Emerging findings from my work opened my eyes to the fact that my seemingly idiosyncratic college experiences ... were not unique to me but, instead, troublingly normative."

My research has expanded and sharpened since then, focusing on the role of public postsecondary institutions, especially community and technical colleges, in creating and advancing educational and economic opportunities for students who face steep uphill battles to complete a degree just as I did. In my research, this includes socioeconomically disadvantaged students, displaced workers, students who are older than what is considered typical for undergraduates (i.e., adult-age students), citizens returning to society after incarceration, and other marginalized groups. My aims are to improve college completion rates for these students and maximize the economic value of the credentials they earn.

Tell us something fun about yourself.

I still have a valid Grade-5 license (the highest level of certification) to practice as a wastewater treatment plant operator in California, which I renew every two years. I also still maintain the commercial driver’s license that I earned while working as a wastewater treatment plant operator.

Is there anything else you'd like to add?

I feel extraordinarily blessed to be able to do the work I am doing and to collaborate with state policymakers, institutional leaders, and other researchers to increase educational and economic opportunity, reduce inequality, help states meet their attainment goals, and strengthen economic vitality and growth.