The first day Brian Melendez walked into his English classroom after having spent eight years as a farm laborer in a town known as the “Lettuce Capital of the World,” he felt out of place.

The 25-year-old sat quietly near the front and decided that even in the English as a Second language class, he fit in less than anyone else.

“The surrounding was different than what I had seen before,” said Melendez, who grew up in “one of the poorest towns in El Salvador” where the roofs are made of out tin and nylon.

A year and half has passed since Melendez stepped outside of the fields in Salinas and into the glass doors of the City College of San Francisco’s Mission campus.

With the encouragement of his father, the financial assistance of his brother and the support of his friends, he not only adjusted to his new surroundings, but he has also emerged as a student leader.

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“I never imagined I would end up being the president of a college,” said Melendez, who was recently elected student body president of the Mission campus.

As community colleges across California continue to attract students from diverse backgrounds, interests, and education levels, including some who have been casualties of the downturn economy, the student governing councils have become increasingly populated with students from vastly different and longer histories.

With life experiences galore, they are unafraid to voice their opinions, come with different skills sets, and feel a commitment to reach out to others who might take advantage of the education community colleges offer, according to interviews with student leaders and college officials.

One student senator at Berkeley City College had a successful 22-year career in information technology, while another, a student treasurer and father of three, is returning to school to achieve his childhood dream of becoming an archeologist after spending 20 years working in construction. And yet another, 42-year-old Enrique Flores, is using his experience of running a small company and his degree from a business school in El Salvador in his role as student treasurer.

“Many have been politically active in their own countries,” said Maria de Socorro, the adviser of the Mission campus student council, made up entirely of students who are foreign-born.

Flores, who takes advanced ESL courses at the Mission campus, has the vocabulary and diction of a politician.

When asked what he plans to do once he’s done with school, the Mission campus student treasurer responded, “I’ll submerge myself in the workforce that’s largely for goodwill of others.”

Most of the 110 California community college campuses have programs to help non-traditional students—students who are 25 or older and are returning to school for the first time or after a long absence—adjust to the demands of college, family life and work.

“We pretty much mirror the state of California,” said Jack Scott, California Community College system chancellor. “We have older people who come, we have diversity in terms of disability…we have diversity in the standpoint of preparation.”

Thirty-eight-year old Shawn Newsom, a student at Bakersfield Community College, said non-traditional students are compelled to act when they see a need to improve support services for students.

“I wanted to give back to the community,” said Newsom, who served as the vice president for his senior class.
“But that was 20 years ago,” Newsom said.

He is now the student treasurer and his wife Kristi, 31, the student president at Bakersfield. She is studying human services. He is studying history. In addition to attending school full time, the couple has three children.

“We breakout into different parts in the house. The young one will come in and say ‘dad can you help me with my homework?’” he said. “I have to be a father, a husband and a full-time student. And I go to church.”

For William Snell, a 47-year-old student senator at Berkeley City College, it’s the third time trying to complete his lower division courses to transfer a four-year university.

He quit school the first time when he suffered a knee injury. The second time he left in the middle of mid-term exams because his boss needed him to return to work to fix the computer systems.

“I’ve been trying to go back for 30 years,” said Snell who plans to transfer to the University of California Berkeley in fall 2011 to get a B.A. in psychology. “This is my third time and I’m not dropping out.”

“Everyday life gets in the way. You may have issues with your wife or husband,” said Snell, who has a 28-year-old daughter and 13-year-old son and recently separated from his wife. “The good thing is that if you have children, they see you going to school. It gives you the incentive to work harder.”

As a member of the Program for Adult College Education program, a support system to help non-traditional students graduate and transfer to a four-year university, he’s on a sure-track to graduation this time, he said.

He stressed that some of the toughest challenges are outside of the classroom.

Mission campus student Patricia Morales agreed.

After attending ESL classes for a year and a half, Morales, 37, enrolled in the school’s General Education Development program. She said she decided to run for student vice president this year when she realized many students were unaware the college offered a high school-equivalent curriculum.

“I want more people to know about this program. This can lead them to have better jobs, to continue other careers. Everywhere you go, they require a high school diploma,” said Morales.

The mother of five—ages ranging from 20 to five year olds—attends classes daily and cares for her family. This semester, she’s taking algebra, biology, English, history and film studies. She wants to become a nurse or school counselor.

“I’m studying all the time,” said Morales, who was born in Guadalajara, Mexico and lives in San Francisco’s Mission District.

Her daily routine starts before dawn when she prepares breakfast for her children, selects the school uniform for her daughter or finishes her schoolwork before everyone wakes up.

“I want to show others that nothing is impossible,” Morales said. “It’s never too late to go to school.”

On a recent school night, Melendez and three other student leaders gathered in room 108 in Mission Campus on Valencia Street during their first meeting as the student council.

The room was packed with more than 25 students, teachers and a counselor.

Several proposals emerged out of the one-hour meeting, such as creating a book-loan program for students in ESL courses, leading an information campaign to let others know of the high school program for adults, having an after-hours library drop-off box, and getting the school to agree to let students use one of its vacant room as a student lounge.

The interaction in the room, however, was outside what typically occurs during most student council meetings.

One attendee “seconded” a motion regarding the book loan program, a move typically reserved for elected student council members. Another participant proposed a resolution regarding the dissemination of information about AB 540, a 2001 law that allows qualifying non-residents to obtain in-state tuition at public colleges and universities in California.

If it looked like students were unschooled in the procedural rules, Melendez, the Mission campus student body president, said their participation was welcomed.

“I wanted to do something new, something different on campus—have open meetings. Anybody can propose and anybody can second a motion,” said Melendez. “Everyone is going to have a say in our meetings.”

As to his own plans beyond college, he said, he’s headed toward a career in biotechnology.