Norco Grad Stories 2014
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Norco Grad Stories 2014
Taylor Armstrong      Life wasn’t ideal, but for Tabitha Johnson, married at 19, it was her reality.
     Still, the bills were paid.
     Sons Alex, Christian and Nathaniel were healthy.
     Her husband, David, however, was permanently disabled, the result of an on-the-job injury.
     Johnson carried on for 17 years…until she lost her job as a property manager in 2009.
     Things spiraled quickly out of control.
     “I had a hard time finding a new position, especially having no education beyond high school,” Johnson said. “Like most others, we lived month to month. It wasn’t long before we had our utilities shut off and started to lose everything including our house.”
     Eventually her family became homeless, living at a Corona shelter. 
     “The burden was on my shoulders being the sole provider, and when I couldn’t find another job, we became very discouraged, especially when we had to let go of all the things we had accumulated. Emotionally, this was the most devastating for my husband who was not able to provide for his family,” she said.
     Although homeless, Johnson still had dreams. To make the dreams a reality, the family would need to start over.
     “We established temporary residence with my in-laws and we resorted to signing up for public assistance,” Johnson said. “Soon after, I enrolled in college and am on my path to pursuing my goal of becoming a registered nurse.”
     Johnson, 41, holds a GPA of 3.8 and is on the Dean’s List. She will graduate on June 12 from Norco College and continue to pursue her dream of becoming a nurse. 
     “I am confident on my academic path and feel that it is what I am supposed to be doing right now,” she said. “I am very humbled as a result of my life experiences, yet more determined than ever to serve as a positive example to my children and community through positive actions.”
     "I'm very fortunate to have a very strong support system in my life right now--my church, family, and the CalWORKS family at Norco College provided me with such positive encouragement. We continue to struggle financially, yet somehow make ends meet. My boss/CalWORKS Coordinator, Daniela (McCarson) pushed me and reminded me that the end goal was near."
Graciela Arzola      Julianna Kilpatrick had a good life, holding down an executive position with Viacom in product placement.
     And then it hit. 
     Not the recession - cancer.
     Kilpatrick, 39, beat the cancer, but lost her career.
     “The doctors told me I couldn’t continue in my present career due to the workload,” Kilpatrick said. Attempting to salvage her future, she began re-examining her life, reviewing her goals coming out of high school in 1990.
     “I wanted to get into sports medicine. At that time, it was impossible for women to have a career in the field, but now women have broken into the sports industry as reporters, athletic trainers, and sports medicine (professionals). I felt my dream could be achieved now.”
     With renewed passion, Kilpatrick, a single mother at the time, dove right in, enrolling at Norco College 21 years after graduating from high school. She and her classmates will celebrate their accomplishments at the commencement ceremony on June 12.
     For Kilpatrick the journey has been intimidating, yet fulfilling.
     “I’d tell single mothers to just do it (return to school),” she said. “The sooner you start, the sooner you are on the journey to a better life. It's incredibly intimidating to risk failure, wonder how out of place you will feel sitting in a classroom, and if you have the ability to handle the schoolwork. I had the same fears. By engaging and becoming involved on campus I found the inspiration to continue on when times got tough.”
     Kilpatrick will leave Norco College with a 4.0 grade point average and two associate of arts degrees. She will continue her education at the University of Texas, working toward a degree in Pre-Med Exercise Science, ATEP (Athletic Training Exercise Program), before beginning the Physician's Assistant in Sports Medicine program.
     “It was a lot of hard work,” she said on maintaining a 4.0 GPA. “Essentially it's about time management and organization. I created study buddies/groups in each class, used an application called iStudies Pro, inputting important dates with alerts. I also used study groups before major tests. Sharing information with others is a great way to find mastery in a subject.”
     Kilpatrick also leaned heavily on her family, including children Brenna and Jack, and boyfriend, Robert Tollett, who attends Norco College. Together they created a workflow chart for daily chores and cooking, giving Kilpatrick time to study. She also credited the staff of Norco College, saying the College is like “family.”
     She says she’ll cherish one thing above all else – knowledge.
     “The knowledge of myself and my abilities. The knowledge of academia and how all subjects combine, allowing me to grow, become educated. The knowledge of empowerment in achieving my goals despite those who said I could not, and pursuing those goals I have not yet reached.”
Misael Castillo       At 18, Denise Prado was making life-changing decisions.
     Two months after graduating from Rubidoux High School in 2003, she enlisted in the Army. She survived three tours in Iraq. When she returned home, she decided to enroll at Norco College and major in sociology. On June 12, she and the rest of the 2014 class will participate in the annual graduation ceremony at the College.
     Prado will continue her studies at UC Riverside. Ultimately, she hopes to become a counselor for the Department of Veterans Affairs.
     “I joined the Army out of high school because I wanted to serve my country and travel,” she said. “It turned out to be a very difficult transition for me, leaving my family and the home where I grew up. It was a life-changing decision. However, the Army really helped shape me, and allowed me to become more independent.”
     Her last deployment turned out to be the toughest for Prado. Prior to leaving for her third tour in Iraq, she became a mother.
     “Deployments had always been nerve wracking for me,” said Prado, who was an automated logistical specialist. “However, to leave my daughter (Azaelah) with my mom (Lena Ortega) was perhaps the toughest thing I ever had to do. Leaving for a war zone, for an extensive period of time, and having a fear of the unknown is indescribable. Obviously, the scariest thing is not knowing if you’ll return home or not.”
     Knowing she’d have to provide for her daughter, Prado wasted little time in enrolling at Norco College after she returned home. She wanted to be an example for her child, and to let her know that education is important and that “with everything I’ve done in my life I still managed to return to school.
     “Returning to private life from the life I knew in the military was a tough adjustment,” she said. “However, I’ve had a great support system with my mother and my cousin, Ruben Aguilar. They both inspired me to push beyond my limitations. I will be forever grateful to have such positive people in my life.”
     Prado said Norco College also deserves a lot of the credit.
     “There have been several people who have been instrumental in helping me adapt to my educational demands,” she said. “I will reflect back and be thankful for all the positive role models who have crossed my path. Those who have made an impact on my life and helped me be where I am today in this educational journey. At Norco College, I’ve had the privilege to meet amazing professors and work such friendly staff members. I will truly miss the College.”
Kevin DiBella      Stalin Soto hates the idea of leaving Norco College and his “academic family.”
     “It was in 1995 when I would (first) meet Norco College,” Soto said. “There were three buildings at the time; it was a windy day, a tumbleweed rolled by as I stood at the top of the steps at the front of the campus. I looked beyond the empty field which now houses the Center for Student Success and thought ‘One day this place will be amazing and we will both do great things. I will be back.’”
     Soto was just 14 years of age when he arrived in the United States, halfway through his sophomore year in high school. Faced with learning a new language after arriving from Ecuador, Soto struggled constantly with his English. He says his first day at Norco High set the tone.
     “I was supposed to ride the school bus. I was directed to stand and wait for it on one side of a street several blocks away from my uncle’s house. I remember watching a group of kids at the opposite corner getting on a bus that arrived. As the bus pulled away, I remember watching them look at me in wonder and even laughing, I imagine because they realized that I didn’t know what I was doing.”
     Soto walked back to the house but had no idea how to say he had missed the bus. “So in my meager translation from Spanish to English I came up with the most sensible one: ‘I lost the bus.’ In Spanish that sounds just fine, but meaning for meaning it has no congruence. My American aunt, whom didn’t speak a lick of Spanish, finally put it together.
     “And so the year would unfold with me begging my mother, whom I didn’t have much of a relationship with since I had been raised by my paternal grandmother, to send me back to Ecuador where all my dreams of becoming an architect were deeply founded. Obviously that didn’t work, so I kept pushing on.”
It was a chance meeting in the fall of 2012 that eventually put Soto back in the classroom.
     “My son was at Norco College taking the assessment test,” Soto said. “I was sitting outside when Maria Maness (academic evaluations specialist), whom I have known for many years, came to talk to me. She told me there was a cancellation and that I should take the open (assessment test) spot. I was not ready, but she had faith that I would do well, so I took her up on it. I qualified for English 1A and Math 52, which I was really excited about. I remember thinking now I had a starting point, and decided I can do this.”
     He and the rest of the Norco College’s Class of 2014 will be celebrated on June 12 at the College’s annual commencement ceremony. Soto will be transferring to UC Riverside where he’ll study sociology after compiling a 3.84 grade point average.
     To get through Norco College, Soto, who is 41 and the father to 23-year-old Porscha and 20-year-old Christopher, worked countless jobs. He’s worked in tutorial services at Norco College and makes custom furniture.
     “To watch younger students miss out on the education opportunity they have to further increase their potential in life by getting a better education is tough,” Soto said. “Whether through laziness of their own or because of life’s challenges, it is painful to see them dropout instead of pressing forward. Time flies by with rocket engines, and there are no guarantees that later in life one will be able to catch up to the world that we live in, or with the dreams of yore.”
     “My kids are now adults and they deserve to have a well-educated father. This is my most important reason to achieve this goal. However, once I acquire a Ph.D. in sociology I would like to return to teach at Norco College; prayerfully they’ll want me back.”
Zachariah Hammers      Chris Rios can see his future despite eyesight of 20/200 and having no central vision in one eye.
     At age 13, the soon-to-be graduate of Norco College was diagnosed with chronic uveitis, a disease that attacks the eyes. Shortly after, he learned that juvenile rheumatoid arthritis was attacking his joints.
     As a Riverside Poly High School student, Rios was in and out of hospitals, dealing with multiple doctors and numerous surgeries, while taking 15 medications. There were occasions where he nearly lost his vision. Today, at 23, he is on a medicine regimen to keep the vision he has left.
     Through it all, Rios never lost sight of his goal--a college education.
     He and the rest of the 2014 Norco College graduating class will celebrate their accomplishments on June 12.
     “The disability makes pursuing my education harder and a (bigger) challenge,” he said.  “Mentally, I strive for the best, but physically my body can’t keep up.”
     Growing up Rios had been a visual learner, but because of his disability had to adapt to alternatives like kinesthetic learning.
     “I’ll have good and bad days, but it doesn’t mean I allow the conditions to stop me from living. Nor does it define me or what I am capable of accomplishing,” he said.  “If anything, the disabilities have motivated me to pursue and understand human behavior, social interaction, and how individuals see themselves.”
     Regardless of the obstacles, Rios is determined to obtain a master’s degree and Ph.D. in psychology from UC Riverside, with a goal of becoming a marriage and family therapist with a concentration in eating disorders and couple counseling.
     Rios said when he accomplishes his goal it will be a victory for many. His mother, Lillian Berrios, his godfather, Carlos Claudio, and his younger brother, Edgardo, have as much in his education as he does. His mother was a single mother of two boys, working minimum wage jobs. He credits Claudio with helping him accept what couldn’t be changed.
     “My mother always motivated me to continue my studies and make my education a priority,” he said. “She believed that I would not only graduate from high school, but attend a university (specifically UCR) and achieve anything that I set my mind to. My godfather showed me that life has the tendency to put you down, be negative or simply just be difficult. The only way to fight back is with your head up and a smile on your face.”
     His brother, Rios said, reminds him of “everything I’ve already accomplished and that I should be proud of it. He helps me cope with my disability in ways that no one has ever been capable of. Overall he helps me enjoy life regardless of the circumstances.”
Liseth Espinoza     Mike You became a statistic when the Great Recession hit.
     “The company where I worked for six years went out of business and I fell into a deep depression,” said You, 32. “After several months I woke up one morning and decided I wanted to go to school. Not knowing how to get started, I came to Norco College. Within a few hours I was registered and on my way to starting college in the spring of 2011.”
     He will finish his journey at Norco College on June 12 when he graduates with fellow students, and continue his education at Cal Poly Pomona studying civil engineering.
     A 1999 graduate of Don Lugo High School, You said getting accepted into Norco College’s Extended Opportunity Programs and Services (EOPS) was life-changing. EOPS is a comprehensive support program for students with economic and academic challenges.
     “I was very fortunate to get accepted into the program,” said You, who hopes to start a business after earning his bachelor’s degree. “The services that this program provided kept my educational plans on track. There were many key players at the College who assisted, encouraged and guided me, and my greatest supporters were my friends and family. Without their support I would not have been able to continue this journey.”
     “My time at Norco College has helped me become more aware of who I am,” he said. “I am no longer this introverted person who is afraid to ask for help. I’ve learned to understand, relax, and apply the information I gained during my time at the College.”