Student overcomes adversity to graduate with three A.A degrees

Her phone screen lit up as she was on the bus to work. The big, bold black words and red text caught her attention. She could sense the urgency. As she glanced over the words her heart sank when she realized she would have to meet with a college counselor right away.

It wasn’t until she got home later that night that she was able fully process the message. She felt terrible and it was on her mind all day. The message said she had been placed on academic probation and was being forced to take a break from school.

She arrived to the Extended Opportunity Program & Services (EOPS) office at Santa Monica College, nervous as she sat in the counselor’s office for advice. The counselor said the college was giving her a “time out” to figure out what she wanted to do about her education.

She had enrolled at Santa Monica College after finishing home schooling through Opportunities for Learning High School in 2010 and attended until fall 2014 when she was asked to leave Santa Monica.

She was juggling three jobs and a full-time class load. She worked at Pacific Park in Santa Monica, security on the weekends and had a part-time job as a bank teller. She had overworked herself and her academic career was suffering.

She took a break from Santa Monica College and continued to focus on work for year. She was content with making money and helping her mother with rent and utilities. But, as time went on she felt her life was becoming monotonous and she decided to return to school to continue her education.

In fall 2015 she enrolled at El Camino College Compton Center to continue her education and hasn’t looked back since. Leilani Garcia, now 28, child development major and Compton resident, said she felt moved by God to take courses in child development once she returned to school.

She signed up for two introductory classes, Child Development 103 and 104. By the end of the semester she knew she had made the right career choice and discovered her love for teaching.

Life is calmer for Leilani now, but it wasn’t always that way. She had to take on adult responsibilities at a young age.

Leilani was raised in her grandparent’s house in Compton with her mother Lydia and younger brothers Lorenzo, Jorge, and Javier. She stayed in her grandparent’s house until she was 13.

As Leilani entered her preteens her home life became stressful.

Her mother Lydia wanted to be independent and move with her children into their own apartment in Watts. They moved from Compton to Watts to Huntington Park and back to Compton again with Leilani’s grandparents. Lydia didn’t graduate from high school and she had Leilani in her early 20s. Lydia always kept a job though working minimum wage cashiering jobs late into the night.

Although they moved around a lot Leilani and her brothers stayed enrolled at the same schools in Compton. Every morning was a three hour routine and commute to school every morning from their apartment.

“I remember we would wake up at like five in the morning to get ready for school,” Leilani says. “My mom would get up and make us ham, egg and cheese burritos every morning before school and get ready for work too, till this day I don’t know how she did it.”

Leilani and her family of five commuted by public transportation for much of her childhood. It was exhausting. Her and her brothers would separate from their mom at some point and continue walking to school. After school Leilani picked her brothers up and walked to the library or her grandparent’s house. At night they had to commute back home and do it all over again the next day.

She shared one bedroom with her three siblings and sometimes with her mom, until her late middle school years.

“We used to have night convos about how our day went and say goodnight to each other,” Leilani says. “Sometimes it was five of us in one room sharing a bunk bed.”

Home life got busier for Leilani as she moved into young adulthood and began to pay for bills. Being the oldest sibling in a single parent household she was like a second mom to her brothers. She had to help with utilities, cooking, babysitting and paying her own phone bill. Going to a community college full time made life difficult to balance.

She was 19, taking general education and psychology classes and taking on too many responsibilities at once.

“I thought I could do it all and I was burned out, I was getting no more than two to three hours of sleep a day and failing a couple of classes,” Leilani says. “I needed to help myself in limiting work because I was only putting myself in situations where like, I was setting myself up for failure.”

Not only was she mentally stressed out and feeling depressed, but the pressure started to affect her physical appearance as well. Her jeans fitting her curvy 5’3” hour-shaped frame went from too loose to too tight and clinging to her body as her weight continued to fluctuate.

She knew she needed to make a change and prioritize her education. That’s when she enrolled at El Camino Compton Center and life started to fall into place.

“She stood out in my mind because she was a very focused student and had a positive attitude about learning,” Compton Center child development professor Hoa Pham, says. “In class she always tried to help everyone and got the job done.”

Leilani received her assistant teacher permit in 2016 after completing the required six units of child development and landed her first preschool teaching job at Beach Babies in Manhattan Beach.

In 2017 she got an associate teacher permit which allows her to fill in as a teacher and lead to a higher paying job through DirectEd Educational Services employment agency, where she is still employed on a contract basis.

One of the classes that required to get her associate teacher permit was Child Development 116 and that’s how she crossed over to El Camino College’s main campus. The class wasn’t offered at the Compton Center so she began taking classes at both campuses.

After spending some time on the main campus and taking more courses, Leilani caught the eye of child development permit specialist Nancy Alvarez who recommended her to be a tutor at the Teacher Resource Room (TRR) of the child development department.

Leilani has been a “super tutor” at the resource room since the start of the spring 2019 semester. The job title lives up to the hype as she can barely sit down for one minute while she’s on duty. Her long wavy brown waist-length hair sways back and fourth as she walks around the classroom with confidence, helping her fellow students with their class assignments and machinery for their projects.

“She’s such a great addition to our team, she’s very attentive and welcoming to students, she helps with whatever is needed here and jumps right in,” Wendy Mata, 34, child development major and co-super tutor, says.

Helping people is something that Leilani says is easy for her, especially working with children. Her area of expertise are children from infants to age 5. She finds that children are automatically drawn to her and says she’s a natural with them.

Leilani loves working with kids because they are genuine and honest and she enjoys being able to watch them grow and develop. She views children’s first moments as miracles and an indescribable feeling.

She takes pride in knowing that she has helped a child write, learn new words, and use their words to communicate their feelings. She hopes that by leaving a mark in their life as a kid they will develop into a productive adult.

Though working with children is Leilani’s passion she doesn’t want to be tied down by one profession. If you ask her what she wants to do she’ll say that she wants to be a jack of all trades. She carries a portfolio of her child development accolades as well a portfolio for her security career.

Leilani will be graduating in the spring with three AA degrees, one in early childhood education, one in social and behavioral sciences, and an AA transfer degree in sociology. She often mentions that she wants to take over the world by being well versed in multiple professions.

Not only will she be a first-generation college graduate, but she’s also a first-generation high school graduate in her family. She has been accepted into over eight universities in California including UC San Diego, UC Berkeley, and CSU Dominguez Hills.

Her most recent acceptance letter came from UC Merced and immediately she knew that was the college for her. UC Merced is also where her long-time boyfriend of nine years Miles Gill currently resides and will be attending with her in the Fall.

“The first thing that comes to mind is resilient and intelligent, she’s one of the most beautiful and talented people I know,” Miles, 26, UC Merced student says. “Failure isn’t an option for her coming from where we come from, there have been plenty of times when she could’ve folded but she kept going.”

Her life today is still busy but she has it together as she’s more in control of her schedule. She’s enrolled in 10 units. Her schedule at the TRR is only three days a week. The two jobs she holds now are contracted positions so she can decide when she wants to work but she’s currently taking a break from both to focus on classes.

Monday through Saturday she keeps busy with school and errands, but Sundays are her holy days. She might run a few errands but absolutely no labor for pay is done on Sundays. Every day she takes a morning walk for about two hours with her Maltese Pierre listening to audio books and doesn’t answer any phone calls or text messages.

Morning walks helps her cope with her anxiety and depression. She also goes to counseling to help her cope and has learned that she’s not “Wonder Woman.” Through life experience and counseling she’s learned a lot about her abilities and knows what she can do and can’t do and she’s OK with it now.

Reality still hasn’t set in for Leilani and graduating in the spring feels surreal. All of her hard work is coming to fruition and now she’s seeing the “big payoff.” She always knew she wanted more from life and never wanted to settle for what she’s seen around her in Compton.

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Photo credit: Elena Perez

“I think about my journey like a video game, you beat one level and unlock another, and you keep going and going until you beat the game and win the championship.” Leilani says.

Photo credit: Cody Sinaguglia
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Photo credit: Elena Perez
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Photo credit: Elena Perez
Photo credit: Cody Sinaguglia
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Photo credit: Elena Perez
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Photo credit: Elena Perez