At first, they were all scared.
They had excelled at Holyoke Community College and found a place here where they felt comfortable, where they were accepted, where they belonged. The prospect of leaving HCC and moving on to an elite, private school like Smith or Mount Holyoke college filled them with anxiety.
"I am one big fearball right now," HCC student Robin Sutton-Fernandez told a panel of six HCC alums Oct. 4, all who now attend or have graduated from Smith or Mount Holyoke. "I never thought I would be in college and now I am looking forward to going to another college after this one. It feels overwhelming."
The message each of the panelists had for her was the same.
"HCC will prepare you," said Audrey Figarella, who transferred to Smith College in 2009. "Jim Dutcher" -- HCC professor of English -- "worked me harder than any of my professors at Smith."
The panelists also had another thing in common. They all came through the Pathways Program at HCC. Pathways offers academic and personal support services to non-traditional students and helps them transfer from HCC to selective four-year schools. Every year, Pathways students graduate from HCC and transfer to top private colleges like Smith, Mount Holyoke, Amherst, Cornell, and Brandeis, and many more.
"Nothing speaks more than actual student experiences and having graduates talk to you about their journey," Pathways coordinator Irma Medina told Sutton-Fernandez and the other HCC students who came to listen. "You may think you're the only one to have these feelings. This just signifies the connection we have."
The panelists talked openly about their fears. They were afraid they weren't smart enough to compete, that the workload would be too great and the classes too difficult, that they would be looked down upon by their professors and their often younger classmates, and that, ultimately, they would fail.
But, they found, the opposite was true.
"It's hard. I'm not going to lie, but it's been a blessing," said Mydalis Vera, '11, a student at Mount Holyoke College who also works part time in the Financial Aid office at HCC.
Vera was 23 years old when she transferred from HCC to Mount Holyoke. She also had a daughter.
"At first, I felt like I didn't belong, but now I feel like I belong to the community," Vera said. "They embraced me. I embraced them."
"HCC will give you a good academic foundation," said Nataliya Yuzych, HCC '10, who started at HCC as an ESL student. She graduated from Mount Holyoke College in May. "My biggest fear? I was afraid to open my mouth. Don't assume your classmates are automatically smarter than you. It's not true."
"The education I got here totally prepared me to get there," said Sarah Dester, HCC '12, a student at Smith. "I learned that I'm every bit as smart as the other girls there, and a lot smarter than a lot of them, and so are you."
"My fear was that I was going to have to do a group project with these young students," said Figarella, who was married with three children when she decided to go back to school. "You'll be amazed. A lot of those fears are unfounded, but you won't know that until you get there."
Joyce Shalaby, HCC '10, is so high on HCC that she recommended it to her daughter, Ellie Kwapien, who is now a first-year student here. Shalaby graduated from Smith last June.
"I really, really believe in this place," she said. "I recommend HCC to everyone. It really will prepare you to transfer."
The worries, Vera said, are worse than the reality.
"Once you're sitting in the classroom," said Vera, "you'll be okay."
Any HCC students interested in attending Smith or Mount Holyoke college can meet with representatives from those two schools' programs for non-traditional women students (Ada Comstock and Frances Perkins, respectively), on Tuesday, Oct. 22, from 2-4 p.m., in Frost 309.
Photos: (Left) HCC alumni Joyce Shalaby, '10, and Audrey Figarella, '09, participate in the Pathways Peer Panel discussion at HCC on Oct. 4. (Right) Natalia Yuzych, '10, and Mydalis Vera, '11. (Thumbnail) Natalia Yuzych.