Running start exposes students to diversity in classes

As high school students take college courses, they also experience a difference in social environments.


Photo by Sophia Kong

Madelyn Dotson, a running start student, stands in Pierce College’s hallway

When you’re attending a college lecture, there isn’t always going to be a hallway for you to walk to class with your friends. The campus is a lot bigger than a high school – and it’s outdoors. It’s easier to get lost. There are no fluorescent lights hanging from above, no walls plastered with blue and white handprints, or flyers guiding you toward the next step after high school. There are no staff standing outside the classrooms with stacks of bright yellow tardy slips yelling, “One minute! Get to class!”

This isn’t high school, and Joy Kwok, a 16-year-old running start student attending her first ever communications lecture at Pierce Community College, is lost, confused, and nervous.

She enters the room, and immediately spots a man in his mid-30’s. And immediately, she notices that instead of being in a class full of students her age, she’s in a class full of students ranging from teenagers to adults who are raising families.

But once the class started a shared discussion about their hopes and fears, one woman shared that she was afraid of being the oldest one in the room.

The professor replied with: “I’m sure there are a lot of running start students in here who are afraid of being the youngest.”

Kwok’s nerves slowly ease away, and she realizes that this room is so much more diverse than any class she’s ever taken at high school.

At any high school, you’ll most likely discover that, socially, students are divided. Gossip spreads quick and words can easily twist into something faulty – one wrong move, and now everyone will only ever see you as this person constructed from distorted rumors. And sometimes, it can feel like everybody already knows everything about you.

But running start students feel that college offers a different experience.

“No one else cares about your background in college. It’s more of how you present yourself,” said Rejae Williams, a junior who is enrolled in running start. “There’s less pressure in wanting to fit in.”

For teenagers, it’s normal to stress over behaving in ways close to the “norm.” For many, the fear of being perceived in any different way can shape the way they perform in school, from refraining from raising their hands for a question to even asking their classmate for help on an assignment.

But Kwok shared that in college, students aren’t categorized into cliques. There’s a vast difference in backgrounds amongst the class, and it fosters an environment where stressing to fit under a certain group is rarely considered.

“There’s that opportunity to learn about people – people who are different from you, people with different perspectives than you or someone in high school,” Kwok said. “You meet mothers who are coming back and getting their degree. You meet people who are retired. And you meet other running start students, too.”

Areli Jimenez Zuniga, a graduated senior who had been enrolled in running start, shared that at Pierce College, there was such a diverse mix of people that it didn’t really leave room for worrying about standing out.

Elena Rodrigues (left) and Madelyn Dotson (right) working on an assignment together.

“I feel like a lot of people are more open to asking questions. They aren’t afraid. And honestly, it got me to ask questions, too, or help out another person,” Jimenez Zuniga said.

So, what about college makes these two social experiences so different?

Kwok said: “It’s not like a classroom that you’re used to in high school, where we’re all the same grade, and we’ve known each other forever. You see people in their 20’s, in their 30’s.”

Being exposed to a community that involves people of all ages, races, backgrounds, and other spectrums grants running start students a real-world perspective. There are mothers who are bringing their child with them to class. There are people moving from different countries who are still adapting to America.

When you’re in high school, you don’t get to experience being exposed to so many differences. But would that take away the feeling of being a normal high schooler?

Jimenez Zuniga explained that running start didn’t take that entire experience away.

“I feel like I’m still a high school student,” they said. “I mean, I come every day (to Rogers) for first period, I do music, and I have friends in class, so I don’t feel like I’m missing out on everything.”