Homeless to Educated Homegirl: Planting the Seed

I can still feel the chill in the air as I looked up at the words “San Diego City College” in big bold letters on the bridge that connects the campus across B Street. Here I was, homeless with three little children, in a city that was unfamiliar and terrifying to me, and all I could promise in that moment was “one day I am going to go to college here.” When I saw the word “college,” all I knew was that meant a better life for us. I walked away with my only belongings, hauled around on a stroller, not knowing where we would sleep that night, but knowing that a seed had been planted. I just never imagined the size of the garden that would grow from it.

Eleven years later I stepped my foot back on that campus where I began to blossom. As a single mother of five children, I have been given the opportunity to change society’s narrative of being “the drug addict/welfare mom” or by my own people “esta chola” to my own narrative, “honor student and a community leader who is setting an example for her children and others.” I never knew that education would empower me to be the strong Latina that I am today.

I can still remember sitting in my first class and feeling so out of place. Here I was surrounded by students who could be my children, and they were using vocabulary words that I had no idea how to use in a sentence. I wanted to run and give up because I didn’t feel that I belonged there. My education came from the streets, and there was no language I could use from out there in the classroom. It took me a couple more semesters to get rid of this stigma that I had placed on myself and to truly start believing that I had a place on this campus.

It was in my Honors English 101 class when I began to remove the masks that I had worn for too long. I remember talking to Professor Mayhew after class one day. I can still feel the tears of shame run down my cheeks as I told her that I didn’t feel like I could complete a writing assignment and that I didn’t have the ability to articulate my words correctly. Professor Mayhew then opened a door for me that was life changing not only in my educational goals but for my life as a whole. She told me that my life experience was more valuable than having a large vocabulary and that’s what made me more knowledgeable than any of these other students. My roots at that moment were planted solidly in the ground. Since then, I have used my story — every shaming, heartbreaking, life threatening, terrifying moment — to empower others and to advocate for those who do not realize they are worth fighting for.

One of the barriers I found as a student with a criminal background was, “Would it matter if I had a degree and did it have any worth?” As a student, I still had responsibilities and needs I had to meet, like helping provide for my family while going to school. Because there is no way a student can live off of financial aid, I started working on campus in food services making frappuccinos and 5 shots of espresso in a grande latte for sleep deprived students. Then the opportunity for a job as an administrative assistant for our 1st Annual Social Justice and Education Conference became available. This was when I saw societies narrative come back to haunt me. One month into the job, my fingerprints came back with a red flag from the Department of Justice (DOJ), and my job was put on hold for six weeks. This gave me time to question the value of the degree I was working on and if my past would always hold me back from other job opportunities. It also gave me time to get angry. I was angry enough to question the education system and wonder if there was really a place for people like me in it. I was able to come back to my position once the DOJ approved my background, but this experience made me very aware of the barriers I would continue to face unless I did something to change the way the world saw me and others like me. Education became my tool to do this.

What has education done for me? Today I get to walk across the bridge with the words “San Diego City College” with my daughter Maricella as we go grab fish tacos in between classes. My oldest daughter, Angelica, just finished her fourth semester of college as she pursues her own educational goals. My newborn that I pushed in the stroller 16 years ago is beginning his junior year in high school. And my two younger children got to see their mom walk across the stage in May as part of the graduating class of 2016. They are all part of the garden that I planted the day I made the promise to further my education. As I continue to bloom, I make sure to plant my seeds in others. Whether it is through sharing my story, mentoring young women, uplifting other students or just giving another person a listening ear, my garden continues to flourish because of what my education has taught me, to be an educated homegirl!

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Maria Elena Morales

Maria Elena Morales

Maria Elena Morales, Co-founder and President of the Urban Scholars Union, a student organization that advocates for students with lived experience, committed to empowering all cultures transitioning from incarceration to education. She graduated from San Diego City College with a Liberal Art degree and has plans to use education as her foundation to advocate for those coming out of the criminal justice system. At 15 years old Maria Elena dropped out of the high school but went back and got her GED at the age of 21. A single mother of 5 children, she has managed to pave the way for her children and to teach them the importance of receiving an education at any age. She has also used her education to become a community leader in San Diego and is currently a JustLeadership USA Leading with Conviction 2016 Fellow, which is an advanced leadership training for formerly incarcerated, mid-senior level leaders with a specific and proven track record in advocacy and community organizing.

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