I am a graduate of community college. April is Community College Month, and it reminds me how important they are and why community colleges are essential to Ventura County’s economic sustainability and the growth of our students.

It was my community college that provided me with the tools, guidance and mentorship on how to pursue my educational goals. I wouldn’t have been able to achieve a master’s degree without a community college education and the dedicated faculty members who are committed to student success.

By the time I got focused and knew what I wanted to do, I was no longer the typical student on campus. I had a 3-year-old daughter, was married and working full time. Without the flexibility and affordability of a community college, there was no way I would have been able to transfer to UCLA and finish my education.

Living near Ventura College, I am reminded yet again of the myriad students who attend class every day, whether to transfer, enhance their skills or to learn important skills to make them viable members of the workforce. Thanks to the long history of innovation and evolution in these colleges, for many they have become the gateway to higher education. Community colleges offer diversity, flexibility and affordability — and are some of the best places people can afford to take a class.

The Ventura County Community College District (VCCCD) serves close to 32,000 students among the three community colleges: Moorpark College, Oxnard College and Ventura College. VCCCD offers not only programs not for those interested in transferring to a four-year college or university, but also career education, basic skills instruction, and continuing education for economic development, cultural growth, life enrichment and skills improvement.

We know that in today’s world having only a high-school diploma sometimes isn’t enough. A bachelor’s degree is now the new associates’ degree; and a master’s degree is the new bachelor’s degree. For many students, achieving a higher education degree also means the possibility of an insurmountable amount of student debt.

Junior colleges, as they were formerly known when they first opened their doors in 1901, were known as “the people’s colleges” because these institutions were affordable and were available to a broader group of working-class Americans than the typical four-year universities. To this day, community colleges continue to be the “people’s colleges.”

Another way that community colleges are helping our community is by invigorating our local Ventura County economic development. While some students are attending community college to eventually transfer, as I did, others are garnering credentials and certifications to advance in their current professions or get hired locally.

These students are not only the potential Ventura County workforce that our businesses need, but some of them are managing, running or own our local businesses. Community college students are landing quality jobs that sustain the economic vitality of Ventura County.

Community colleges were founded on the belief that a more skilled workforce results in a stronger economy. For more than a century, they have been at the forefront of nearly every major development in higher education, offering a connection to higher-paying jobs.

In a way, community colleges are pioneers of the revolutionary open-doors admission policy, accepting students from all walks of life. Not only were these institutions essential in receiving returning World War II and Korean War veterans who were eager to use their G.I. Bill benefits, these colleges also opened their doors to many other generations and have served an ever-growing diverse population ranging from young to working-class men and women, to nontraditional students like myself, in a quickly changing economy. Community colleges continue to offer a connection between education and jobs, in addition to providing a life preserver for those who might otherwise be left without a job or in a lower-paying job.

I applaud the work of the three Ventura County community colleges, faculty and staff, who do the work of supporting students and continuing pursuit of economic vitality in Ventura County.

With sincere appreciation and in celebration of Community College Month, thank you to everyone who helped along my community college journey. You continue to educate and train a workforce of everyone from students to lifelong learners.

Jeanette Sanchez is the President of Ventura County Women’s Political Council and cover education issues as District Director for Assemblywoman Jacqui Irwin, D-Thousand Oaks.