Starting smart, starting over at community college

Clockwise from top-left: Mike Auer, Cassiopeia Ottulich, Arlene Winrow and Casey Valdez

Job training. Two-year degrees. A cheaper first-half of a bachelor’s. An after-work exploration of a new subject for a lifetime learner. The Ulster County Community College (aka SUNY Ulster) is many things to many people.

SUNY Ulster’s popularity might have something to do with the eminently affordable $2,065 per semester county residents pay for tuition. Another attractive feature is the fact that the school accepts nearly all applicants, so late-bloomers need not fear that a few years of teenage slacking will bar them from the university gates.


These features are common to most community colleges. But what is it like at SUNY Ulster? What do students say? Knowing full well it was possible that not everyone would have a positive opinion (some are familiar with the slightly disparaging term “13th grade”), we sought recent grads to provide a first-person, insider’s view of what it’s like to attend the local community college, and what role it played in their lives. These are the stories of some of the young people with whom we spoke, and their stories may surprise you.


Path to a bachelor’s

Founded in 1962, SUNY Ulster is located on a verdant and smoke-free campus in Stone Ridge. About 3500 students are enrolled, split evenly between part-time and full-time. In Saugerties, about a quarter of recent high school graduates enrolled there (170 of the 671 graduates between the years of 2010-12), which is typical. (Between two-thirds and three-quarters of high school graduates enroll in college, including four-year universities and two-year schools in other counties.)

“Honestly, choosing to attend Ulster was the best decision I could have made,” said Arlene Winrow, 20, who graduated from Saugerties High School in 2010 and enrolled at Ulster that fall. “Being the fourth of four children who all attended college, I wanted to choose a cheaper school option, since I knew my dad was up to his ears in student loans.”

By cheaper, Winrow meant pretty much free. UCCC offers free tuition to Ulster county students who graduate high school in the top 10 percent of their class. However, qualified students still pay standard student service fees, which cost Winrow about $250 per semester.

Winrow studied accounting and graduated in May of 2012 with a 3.89 GPA, then transferred to the College of Saint Rose in Albany. There she was accepted into an accelerated 5-year BS/MS in accounting program on a $15,000 scholarship. “I knew from the beginning that Ulster would be a stepping stone for me to transfer to a different school after receiving my associate’s degree,” she said.

She still has to pay about $6,000 beyond the scholarship, so she’s borrowing some money. But if the cost holds, the entire master’s degree will end up costing her $30,000.

“If I had skipped Ulster and gone straight to a school like Saint Rose, I’m sure I would have done well, but I would certainly be thousands of dollars poorer,” said Winrow.


Hit reset

Cassiopeia Ottulich, 24, from Ashokan, didn’t attend SUNY Ulster because it was free. She didn’t really have a choice. Graduation day at Coleman Catholic High School sort of snuck up on her, she said, and while all her friends had already applied and been accepted at numerous universities, she was left without a plan. “When I graduated I was like ‘oh my God,’…I should go somewhere. I knew that Ulster just accepts everyone.” So Ottulich enrolled at SUNY Ulster in 2006 to study theater arts.

She flunked out her first semester. “I was 18 years old and had all these eighteen-year-old problems,” she explains.

She held a variety of jobs for the next four years, working at retail stores like Zumiez and Hot Topic. She also did a stint at medical insurance company First Source, where, in her own words, “I was sitting in my cubicle one day and my friend put this book on my desk, called ‘Blankets.’ It was a graphic novel, and I’ve always been artistic but I never wanted to do anything with art.”

She was inspired by the 2004 autobiographical coming-of-age story by Craig Thompson, featuring dreamy black-and-white illustrations as touching as they are haunting.

“I was like, holy crap, I want to do this! I want to go to school for art!” she said. “So then I applied to FIT [Fashion Institute of Technology], but since I flunked out of SUNY Ulster the first time, they weren’t interested because I had a grade point average of like, 1.”

In 2010 she went back to Ulster, this time to study fine arts. Luckily, said Ottulich, “they’re forgiving.”

This time she got “A”s in all her classes. Still, two semesters with a 4.0 GPA didn’t bring her grade up to where she wanted it. Once again, the forgiving nature of the college came in handy. SUNY Ulster has something called the “Fresh Start Policy,” which allows students who left the school without graduating to start again with a new GPA if they have not taken a course for two years. Qualified students retain credit for courses completed with a C- or better that are applicable to their major, but these old grades don’t count toward the GPA. Ottulich found out about the program at a brunch for students who had made the President’s List, and soon filed the paperwork.

“All of a sudden I had a 4.0,” she said.

After graduating in June, she applied and was accepted to the School of Visual Arts (SVA) in New York City, and received a $25,000 merit-based scholarship. Combined with financial aid and additional scholarships, Cassiopeia’s tuition is covered for the three years it will take her to earn her bachelor of fine arts degree in illustration.

Of all the things Cassiopeia liked about her time at SUNY Ulster, she seemed to value her teachers the most. “Every teacher I’ve had has been really great,” she said. “They were always figuring out how to help their students.”

In particular, one of her art teachers, Chris Seubert, helped Cassiopeia build her portfolio, allowing flexibility in the assignments and pushing her to advance based on feedback she received from portfolio reviews she periodically attended. One of Cassiopeia’s history teachers encouraged her to apply for the scholarships the college offers to students going on to other institutions.

The relationships she built with her teachers is one of the only things that makes Cassiopeia hesitant about moving on to SVA. “It’s a bigger pond. My classes [at SUNY Ulster] were small.”

She said the friends she will live with in the city keep warning her, ‘This isn’t SUNY Ulster.’

“But I think it’s all a mindset thing,” said Ottulich.


An early start

Mike Auer, 18, and Casey Valdez, 19, owe SUNY Ulster more than their associate’s degrees. They owe it their relationship.

Auer describes the initial encounter: “My first Friday at Ulster, I wandered into the bookstore, and while I was waiting in line, I saw her helping someone with their books. I was standing with some friends, who I then bet that I could get her number. I approached her with an outstretched hand and said, ‘Hello, I would just like to say you are extremely attractive.’ She was in disbelief at this point, so I tried to keep my bet going by asking her to pretend to write her number down, to which she responded by giving me her real number!”


If that sounds a bit awkward, keep in mind both were younger than the average college student. Auer had not yet graduated high school and Valdez wasn’t even old enough to drive (she’d completed homeschooling at age 14).

Valdez went on to college in 2008, after taking a year off. “I chose Ulster primarily because when I became ready for college I was still too young to go away to a four-year school and live on my own.”

She jumped right into student activities, serving as the president of the Student Government Organization, a student director on the Association Board of Directors, and as a member of the Phi Theta Kappa Honors Society as well as the math team. Somewhere she found free time, and managed to design an individual honors curriculum, which featured multiple independent studies and projects in her areas of interest.

Auer’s experience was similar. Dissatisfied with high school, he enrolled in the Early Admissions Program at UCCC in what would have been his senior year to earn a high school degree while simultaneously earning a year of college credits. He thrived in the new environment, and, like his girlfriend, piled on the extracurricular activities.

“I felt like, for the first time in my life, I had people around me who didn’t think of me as being a prep, jock, Goth, etc., and instead thought of me as a fellow student and person,” he said, “as someone who went to work and school the same way they did, and could relate on a level other than just what bands we liked or what girls we thought were cute.”

Auer also raves about the faculty. “I feel like I know my teachers better than I know most of my friends,” he said.

Valdez graduated in 2011; Auer a year later. Both currently study political science at SUNY New Paltz and plan on going on to grad school with the oodles of money they saved by participating in the SUNY system.