Joshua Elizondo is no stranger to the barriers to higher education — as a former foster youth of color, he drove across the country at age 18, grappled with homelessness and figured out how to navigate college alone without miring himself in debt.

Now he’s using his experiences to make the community college system more inclusive, accessible and connected to opportunities on a statewide basis. In August, Elizondo was appointed as the sole student member of the California Community Colleges Board of Governors and his big plans for his position.

“I think what I do well, or at least what I hope I do well, is knowing what a lot of students want and I really do want to amplify other student voices,” said Elizondo. “I really want to be able to give back and build a better system.”

Elizondo found his way onto the state board through the advocacy work he became involved with while working on Santa Monica College’s Guided Pathways Framework. This program seeks to increase equity and efficiency for students completing degrees at SMC and transferring into further education or job opportunities.

“Someone like myself, who is a first generation college student, Latinx, LGBTQ and then former foster youth, I didn’t really have a lot of resources, especially moving out to Los Angeles by myself after foster care and education didn’t seem like it was possible,” said Elizondo.

Despite these challenges, Elizondo did find ways to succeed and realized that there are programs out there for students like him, if they know where to look. Elizondo received a foster youth scholarship for his tuition at SMC and is now simultaneously taking classes at Pepperdine through a similar program.

One of his goals on the Community Colleges Board is to improve outreach and communication systems so disadvantaged students are aware of the resources available to them.

“I never knew that Pepperdine had a foster youth program and I think that’s partly a problem,” said Elizondo. “If programs are there to support foster youth, there needs to be common messaging about where they can transfer to and also some of the resources that are available to them.”

Elizondo also seeks to advocate for the needs of the broader community college population and ensure that curriculum requirements and modalities of teaching are structured to meet their background and current lifestyle.

Prior to stepping onto the Community College Board, he helped advocate for A.B. 705, which waived remedial requirements for English and math, allowing all students to jump into college level classes and preventing them from getting stuck in the community college system for years.

Now he is focused on efforts to make online learning a permanent opportunity for students. From speaking to students and reading comments online, Elizondo sees that remote learning is vital to many students’ success.

“They say it is easier online, that they no longer have to commute two hours from the Inland Empire, or they no longer have to worry about not making it back to work or work overlapping, because they can do it online or it’s flexible,” said Elizondo.

At SMC, Elizondo is advocating for all classes and degree programs to have an online option post-pandemic. He is pushing the administration to explore the possibility of teachers live streaming their classes while teaching in person, to make remote offerings more sustainable in the long-term. He hopes such policies will also resonate with community college leaders on a state level.

“I think right now whatever student has a position at statewide leadership has a very unique opportunity to shape a system for many years to come,” said Elizondo. “I feel, even though COVID is a real situation, looking outside of COVID, this situation has offered the opportunity to really transform the way we do business, and do it now versus going back to what we were doing.”