Learn How Katina Earned an A.A. and High School Diploma at the Same Time

Check out this article written by Katina Hago Saenz about her experience. Katina graduated from the high school program of Pacific Sands Academy in June 2020. At the same time, she also earned her A.A. degree in Anthropology from Ventura Community College.

Today I’m writing about what my experience was like getting an A.A. and a High School Diploma at the same time.

What is an A.A. or an A.S.? 

An Associate’s Degree is a degree awarded to graduates of community college. It’s like the first two years of college. Just like a Bachelor’s degree, where you can earn a B.A. (Bachelor of Arts) or B.S. (Bachelors of Science) you can earn an A.A. or an A.S. After finishing their Associate’s Degree, many students go on to four year universities to get their Bachelor’s Degree. Just like a Bachelor’s Degree, an Associate’s Degree has a major and general education (G.E.) classes. 

Pros of an A.A.

Getting your G.E.s out of the way and “less pressure” to figure out your major 

Getting an A.A. at a community college is a great way to complete your G.E. requirements. When you go to a four year university, you can focus more on your major classes. It’s a way where you can figure out what you’re interested in, so that when you get to a four year university, you know. 

Free

Classes are free for high school students at community college. These students are called “dual-enrolled” students and don’t have to pay tuition. Being dual-enrolled is an affordable way to get two years of college credit done. I feel much less financially stressed about completing my Bachelor’s degree because I only have two years left to go, instead of four. Put simply: you can save a lot of money!

Get Ahead in College

By being dual-enrolled this, you get ahead in college. This can mean that if you choose to go to a four year university right after you graduate high school, you’ll be two years ahead of everyone in your age group! You’ll have more college experience than incoming freshmen. So you’ll be more prepared for your classes and all the other things waiting for you in university. 

More Flexible 

You get to choose your schedule and your classes in college. Part of the reason I struggled in traditional school was that I had insomnia and couldn’t wake early up consistently. I loved that I could choose the time and day I went to classes, and I didn’t have to schedule any morning classes!

It’s Cool!

Now I’m not talking about any “bragging rights” you might get from doing this, but the fact that taking this path will give you different experiences and open your mind up to more possibilities. The coolest people I’ve met have been the ones who have had lots of different experiences and seen the value in all of them. These students recognized how each one has shaped them into the person they are today. While getting an A.A., I got to learn about lots of different subjects, have lots of different experiences, and learn from a lot of different perspectives. That was really cool!

I wouldn’t even know how much I liked Anthropology without taking all these classes. I got to take so many cool classes on subjects that I wouldn’t have had a chance to explore otherwise, like Survey of Alternative Medicine; Magic, Witchcraft, and Religion (the anthropology of religion); and Multicultural American Literature. College professors also take a different approach than high school teachers.

In one of my classes, called Culture and Communication, we were learning about how language and culture impact each other. One of our assignments was a group project where we had to create our own language and do a skit entirely in that language. For our skit, we decided to do a summoning. We had one of the group members dress up in a white sheet as a ghost as I “summoned” her in our made up language to the theme song of Ghostbusters. It was super fun and everyone in the class had a big laugh. 

Finding Like-Minded People

When I was 17 or 18 in my final years of high school, it became easier to make friends in my classes. Around that time, I was certain of what I liked and what I wanted to study. Since I was focusing more on classes in that area of study, I was meeting other people who also loved studying the same thing! I had more than one class with the same people, so I saw them more often and was able to build deeper connections with them.  It took me a while to get that point, to feel comfortable and like I actually belonged in these college classes, but once I did I made really good friends that I still keep in touch with today.

Cons

While there are a lot of pros to getting an Associate’s at the same time as your high school diploma, there are also some cons. Here are the main ones that I discovered:

Hard to Connect With Other Students

When I started taking college classes, I was a freshman in high school. I was almost 14 when most other people in my classes were much older- and that took some getting used to. At community colleges, students are a diverse mix of ages and experiences. Many are straight out of high school. Several are in their mid twenties coming back to college after taking a break from school. Some are working parents who want to make a career switch. Some are middle-aged people who are in college for the first time. And then there are a few students who are like me. 

I was almost always the youngest student in the room, and at times I felt embarrassed about my age around so many older people. Being in this situation made me feel a bit  like an imposter. There was a voice in my head that said “You don’t belong here” and “No one else here is like you, what are you doing here?”

I did take two classes where most or all of the students were other high school students taking college classes. But those were two classes out of the 25 classes that I took to get my degree. 

Can be Stressful 

Another con is that getting an Associate’s degree while you are in high school can be stressful. I mean, getting a degree can be stressful for an adult, let alone a high schooler. It is a great experience and it can be very interesting and fun. However, at the end of the day it is like any other degree. There is lots of homework, exams, reading, and deadlines. 

Looking back, getting an AA may have put too much pressure on me. Most of it was self-imposed. I thought I had to be the best and do the most, or else I wasn’t good enough. I wish I had focused more on finding balance than filling my course load and getting the highest GPA.

When I told people that I was getting an A.A. as a high school student many people said “Wow! You must be so smart!” A part of me felt like I had to live up to that expectation. People on the outside, professors and friends, would see my grades or accomplishments and be impressed, but they didn’t really see how much I struggled and how much it cost me to get there. It’s easy to get caught up in all the options and expectations. 

Being Self-Motivated

This is both a pro and con that you have to deal with when getting an Associate’s in high school.  You have to be self-motivated to do it. When you’re in college, you have more freedom than you do in high school. Whether you are 14 or 24 you are treated the same way in college classes. You are seen as a student first, and as most of the students at community college are adults, the classes are structured for adults. If you’re not showing up to class, they’re not going to call your parents, you’ll simply be dropped from the class or failed. If you’re struggling, it’s up to you to go to office hours and ask the professor for help.

Since you are in charge of your schedule as a college student, it’s easy to sign up for too much and bite off more than you can chew. It’s up to you to know how much you can handle, and if you make a mistake and take on too much, to decide which class(es) to drop before the deadline.  I definitely learned to be more independent while getting my degree. However, I would be lying if I told you that was an easy lesson to learn. 

Bureaucracy

This was a big negative that I had to deal with while getting my degree. The college system is not easy to navigate by yourself as a high school student. Since the system isn’t designed with students like us in mind, it takes a lot of extra work to do even simple things. For example, regularly enrolled college students can choose and register for their classes all online. Dual-enrolled students have to register in person and bring photo ID, forms signed by a legal parent/guardian. Plus documents signed by the director/ principal of their high school approving the EXACT classes they want to sign up for, down to the ADD codes and course numbers.

At the beginning of the semester, I wasn’t always sure which classes I was going to be taking. Many classes had waitlists and I was still figuring out my schedule. So I had to get “cleared” for every single class that I wanted to sign up for, even if I didn’t end up taking that class! 

I was told MULTIPLE times by college counselors and officials “I’ve never seen someone in your situation before. I don’t know what to do with you or how to help you.” It was incredibly frustrating trying to get help or advice from the college on how to complete my Associate’s degree.  Plus, I was very confused for a long time about what the requirements were for getting an Associate’s degree. In addition, I felt lost and frustrated because I couldn’t find anyone who could help me. It took me MONTHS to even get a counselor to let me in the door. Because I was a dual-enrolled student in a private school. You may think all the capital letters are a bit over the top, but it really was that much of a headache. 

Was it Worth it?

After reading all the cons I just listed, you might be thinking: well, was it worth it?

Overall, yes! I’m glad I did it. I learned a lot not only academically, but about myself and the world around me. Plus, now I know what I want to study and what I’m interested in. Furthermore, because of this experience, I’m more aware of social injustice and I’m more open minded. I’m more confident in my abilities. In addition, I am better at advocating for myself and asking for help when I need it. 

Sure, there are things I wish I would’ve done differently, the main one being how much pressure I put on myself to do well. But in a way, I’m glad it happened. Now, I feel like I’ve worked through the many of the things that caused me pain. I’m no longer willing to sacrifice my peace of mind to be “the best” and burnout. Now that I got that out of my system, I’m happier and the way I look at school, work, and life is better.

To anyone else out there who is thinking of doing it, I would say go for it! Hopefully, you will take away all the awesome things that come with getting an A.A. along with your high school diploma, while also learning from my mistakes. 

Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Make sure you have a support system that’s always there for you whenever you need them.