When Trinh Mai Pham, 32, came to the United States from Vietnam in 2004, she didn't speak a word of English.
Pham, who now lives in Clearwater, started taking English classes in 2006 at St. Petersburg College, which was affordable and close to her home. In May, she graduated with her associate's and bachelor's degrees and a command of the language.
"It was my big dream," said Pham, who plans to open a day care center in Pinellas Park.
Administrators say the college's recent initiatives designed to make sure students finish their degrees are reflected in stories like Pham's. The results also are visible in a June 24 Community College Week report that ranked SPC 10th among four-year institutions nationwide for the number of associate degrees awarded.
The school has made an effort to tailor advising to students' individual needs, expand tutoring services and keep tuition affordable, said Tonjua Williams, senior vice president of student services.
"Our job is to make sure they finish what they started," she said.
In the 2011-12 academic year, SPC awarded 4,019 associate degrees — up 14 percent from the year before, compared with 8 percent nationwide. This year, SPC came in behind six other Florida colleges.
Over the past two decades, community colleges across the country have started viewing themselves as degree producers, not just places for people to take courses here and there, said Victor Borden, professor of educational leadership and policy studies at Indiana University, who analyzed data for the report. The change is largely a response to a growing need for job applicants to have a degree to be competitive.
About two years ago, SPC started a "college experience" initiative, which aims to adjust academic planning to fit students' individual goals and outside responsibilities in order to help them graduate, Williams said.
Many students at community colleges also work or have a family, which makes completing a degree difficult, Borden said. This means a high number of degrees awarded is not necessarily tied to a large student body but rather the students' ability to make it through college.
Pham's life changed dramatically while she took classes at SPC. She said her husband left her and she had to take care of her daughter, now 7. She also worked full-time. She said SPC advisers helped her academically and helped her work through her problems outside of school.
"I felt better and stronger after that," she said.
One way to keep students in college is make sure it's affordable, Williams said.
SPC is ranked in the top 10 percent of public four-year colleges with the lowest tuition and fees in a recent report by the U.S. Department of Education.
The school works for grants and other funding and money-saving opportunities in order to keep tuition down while improving programs, Williams said.
"We put our money where our values are."
Lauren Carroll can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8913. Follow @LaurenFCarroll on Twitter.