On a Friday afternoon last spring, Dennis D’Amelio, an artist and teacher in late middle age was presiding over a class in color theory at LaGuardia Community College, whose location in the immigrant hub of western Queens makes it one of the most ethnically diverse colleges in the country. It was the end of the semester and the students were tackling a challenging assignment — a test of the reactive properties of color, which required the meticulous rendering of small sequential blocks of paint, an exercise that would serve as a lesson in deductive reasoning and consume hours.
Vladimir de Jesus, a child of Puerto Rican parentage and Soviet enthusiasms, had arrived early with various supplies and considerable energy. At 23, he had been at LaGuardia sporadically over six years, amassing fewer than half of the credits he needed to progress to a four-year college.
For all of that time, and really for so long before it, he had known that he wanted to pursue a life in the arts. In an essay he wrote in March, he talked about painting and drawing pastels as a young boy, and the link that art provided to his mother, who had also painted and who died in the early 1990s of AIDS, a disease that also claimed his younger sister.
After the deaths, the family moved to Puerto Rico, living for several years in cars or in shelters, before returning to New York, where Mr. de Jesus attended Washington Irving High School, which has a long record of dismal performance. He eventually dropped out and earned an equivalency diploma.
Mr. de Jesus is tall, with an angular face and long hair he often wears in braids, and much of his skin is covered in tattoos — of Che Guevara and roses and the words of Bob Marley.
“All I cared about was art and global history,” he told me one afternoon in the apartment he shares with his father and stepmother in subsidized housing on Roosevelt Island. “I was really rebellious, and I was cutting classes all the time.” At 17, he had a child.
As a community college student, Mr. de Jesus is both prototype and outlier. The majority of community college students come from low-income families, and many arrive at school, as he did, with competing obligations (29 percent of community college students in the United States are parents), as well as the need for extensive remediation. The widely held impression that community colleges are essentially vocational is inaccurate. Data released by the American Association of Community Colleges in September indicated that most of the associate degrees awarded in 2012 were given in the liberal arts and sciences, outnumbering those for nursing, say, or marketing. <Read more.>