Saeed Ahmad remembers being questioned by a high school teacher for opting to attend a local community college. The teacher, Ahmad said, suggested that only those who couldn’t get into a university would attend a two-year program and told him it could lead to struggles in finding a solid economic future.

Replied Ahmad: “I told him the only struggle I’m going to have in two years is when I get my associate degree and can’t make up my mind in choosing between transferring to UCLA and UC Berkeley.”

The Norco College alumnus chose UCLA. He graduated in June with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and is eyeing law school at Harvard, Stanford or Yale.

“I owe a lot to Norco College and I have absolutely no regrets, just gratitude,” Ahmad said.

Ahmad is hardly atypical. Indeed, 29% of University of California graduates and 51% of California State University graduates started their higher education journey at a California Community Colleges campus. For many, it makes economic sense. For others, a community college provides the opportunity to find yourself. For Ahmad, it was a combination of the two.

“Saeed represents the best of what the community college experience offers,” said Norco College English Professor David Mills. “His time here developed him into the person capable of the success he has had at UCLA.”

Born in Karachi and hailing from the city of Lahore, Pakistan, Ahmad – now 20 – moved with his parents to Corona at a young age, in large part because of the educational opportunities the West afforded. “One thing my family really valued about the United States was the emphasis on education. Education was seen as leading to equity, it was seen as opening doors to opportunities that didn’t exist in other countries. No matter what your nationality was, no matter what your skin color was, education was seen as the key to reaching your dreams.”

But by the time he reached high school, Ahmad was losing his interest in his studies. “I wasn’t very goal oriented,” he said. “I wasn’t really sure what I was doing. And I had surrounded myself with people who were not a good influence.”

Even though his junior year was dominated by AP classes, he didn’t much care for the courses and he said he felt completely overwhelmed.

The turning point came when Ahmad, out of curiosity, registered for a mock trial competition and was selected as a lead attorney. Before long, Ahmad would focus on a new goal: law school. But first, he set his sights on an undergraduate degree from UCLA.

His grades, however, wouldn’t help him get there. Rather than continue on with high school, he opted for an alternate route, taking and passing the California High School Proficiency Exam and securing the equivalent of a legal diploma.

Next stop: Norco College, an Inland Empire campus that is part of the Riverside Community College District.

There were many doubters along the way. “It was like a community college wasn’t good enough,” Ahmad said. “Like it wasn’t a real college.”

Ahmad dedicated himself to proving the doubters wrong. He served as president of a campus pre-law society, took part in the Honors Program and worked as a student ambassador. He earned nothing but A’s on his report card, save for one B in his final semester.

“Saeed became a leader,” said Dean of Student Life Mark Hartley. “He served as a student ambassador and a mentor for first-year students, he visited local high schools promoting what Norco College could offer. And he was always the first one to volunteer and the last one to leave.”

Ahmad graduated in 2018 with three associate degrees: humanities, philosophy and art; social and behavioral studies; and math and science.

He transferred to UCLA that fall and became just as involved at the Westwood campus: president of the Pre-Law Transfer Society, active with the Muslim Student Association and involved with the Pakistani Student Association. He also spent more than a month this past summer as one of just 20 students across the nation selected to participate in the Harvard Law School TRIALS program, which includes lectures by prominent lawyers, public figures and legal scholars, in addition to what he promises to be a very intensive LSAT preparation.

Ahmad will begin applying to law school in September.

“Whatever you want to be, whatever goal you want to reach, the most efficient way of getting there is through a California Community College. I mean, you have a choice: you could either pay next to nothing in tuition to go to a college taught by professors with Ph. Ds and master’s degrees who are in the classroom and not doing research; or you could go to a university for your first two years and pay $70,000 for the same general education classes you’re taking at a community college.

“It’s also a great way to foster relationships and gives you the time you need to grow as a person.”