Jodi - You definitely sound like one of the students I see so often at GateWay - the returning adult. Congratulations on your acheivements. I too, had fantastic instructors who encouraged me. I've been mulling over this whole thread and have come up with a few more ideas to throw into the mix. I did go through a four year college at the start but it was a small one -- about 1000 students -- and it helped me a lot. I had always been classified as a "gifted underacheiver" and it was while I was there that I found out that I have a different learning style. Once I learned to work with it, I started to do a great deal better. In addition to the math that I love, I found a new field of interest that I didn't start to explore until I had children of my own.
In the community colleges there is a completely different emphasis -- at least here in Arizona. Our original charter was teaching -- not research. The entire system is focused on that one idea. When I attend district sponsored conferences, and there have been quite a few of those, the focus is on some aspect of teaching rather than research. A key component of teaching is communication and we are always looking for better ways to communicate knowledge to our students. We try to keep current in our field and find ways to explain it to others. One of the most successful components of that effort is the ability of community college instructors to be positive and encouraging with their students. When students are encouraged, they do better. I found this to be true with all levels of students - including those who had entered the state correctional system for juveniles. (True, some of those students had to be taught first that being positive did not mean being weak, but that only strengthens my conviction of its worth.) In the community college, this attitude is encouraged. During my graduate program and during my classes at two of our local universities, I definitely did not find this to be the case.
To sum it all up, there is a completely different emphasis within the community college system here in Arizona and it appears to be similar in other states. I love that emphasis because we get to include so many more people and help them succeed in all areas.