Yolanda Carson was just six years old when her mother mapped out her future, "You don't need an education. Look at me. I didn't go to school and I turned out fine. You just have to find a good man."
Living in Mexico, Yolanda never went to school until she was 12 — and not to take classes — but to enroll her two younger brothers. The principal suggested she also attend, as long as she could fulfill the two requirements — wearing shoes and bringing a birth certificate. She did both and was enrolled, but being far behind her peers, she was put in 2nd grade. Yolanda remembers the embarrassment she felt learning with her much younger classmates.
Looking back, Yolanda laughs, "I was so tall, and they were so short. But, I felt good about myself because I was in school."
Searching for a way to learn English, at age 13 Yolanda moved to San Diego by herself. "I came here on my own, to live with my mom's friend," Yolanda explains. "I wanted to be smart, to learn English."
This time she was enrolled in 7th grade, but the experience was less than kind.
"English was so hard. Kids would giggle," Yolanda remembers. "Make fun of me. I'd feel embarrassed, hot inside, just want to cry."
So before finishing 8th grade, when her mother asked her to return to Mexico and help take care of some of her 13 brothers and sisters, she agreed. Then, her mother dropped another bomb — an arranged marriage.
"I no longer have to take care of you now," her mother told her. "We found somebody to take care of you."
Within months, Yolanda was pregnant. Unfortunately, the marriage didn't work out, and with children to take care of Yolanda's education came to an end. Until twenty years later.
"All my life all I wanted was an education, I wanted a job," says Yolanda. "I wanted to be independent. I wanted to be my own woman. I didn't have any of that. I wanted a taste of it."
So, once again, Yolanda went to school. This time she went to the San Diego Community College District, specifically, the Educational Cultural Complex (ECC). Her first goal was to pass the GED.
But there were roadblocks. Supplies, attention and encouragement were all in short supply. The teacher she was assigned to was bogged down in paperwork, testing and policing the noise level.
"All I got was a folder and a book. No instructor. No instructions. I'd have to work on my own. There was no tutor, no classes, no individual help, nothing. All those months it was just me. It was a headache."
Yolanda remembers how one professor, John Smith, rescued her from giving up. "The only reason I succeeded was because he paid me unique attention," said Yolanda. "He gave me a bunch of books to take home; even magazines and nature books. He'd ask me all the time if I was reading."
For eight months sat in a tiny room with other struggling students, none of whom had a teacher, a tutor, or individual help, sharing nothing more than book work and a shred of hope. Yolanda remembers that learning new concepts took forever. And there were plenty of new concepts to learn.
"I had no education at all," complains Yolanda. "It took me eight long months to finish. I had to learn Science, Social Studies, and Math, one at a time."
After eight months she was told she was ready to take the GED. But Yolanda wasn't convinced. She rode the bus to the test site, and passed all subject except one – math.
"Everybody knows I struggle with math," Yolanda says. "It's no secret."
Once again, she almost gave up. "Without help, I knew I wouldn't be able to pass math. And ECC had no personal help."
Returning to ECC, Yolanda met with a stroke of luck. The school had just hired a second teacher, John Lindem, to teach math. And this time there was going to be a class.
"Math was impossible," says Yolanda. "But he was tutoring me before class — and in class — and after class."
Yolanda describes waiting for the result after a second attempt at the test as painful. "I had anxiety worse than Christmas for a kid."
She ticked the days off on her calendar. On Valentine's Day, the results arrived. Tearing open the envelope, she examined her scores.
"I was so happy," she says. "It was my Valentines present. I never would have made it without the individual attention. I don't know how the other students did it. I guess they didn't."
Then on March 11th, her birthday, she got something she had always wanted — a job. ECC was going to hire her. They wanted her help and experience to pilot a new program, the Basic Skills Initiative (BSI). Yolanda assumed some of the paperwork responsibilities of the new program, freeing the instructors to teach classes in math, reading and writing. Finally, students had available some individual assistance.
"We hired her because she knew what it would take to help others succeed." John Lindem explains. "She became the first BSI Instructional Assistant in Continuing Ed."
The program swelled. More instructional assistants were added. Tutors were brought on board. Informative seminars ensued. More classes opened. And more students got their GED.
"Everybody now is so fortunate to have tutors and help," says a happy Yolanda. "This place really came up."
The program has grown from serving only GED and High School students, to helping anybody requesting assistance. Prospective police officers come to bolster their writing skills, construction workers seek to hone math skills, and foreign language speakers, such as Hadyatou Diallo, come to improve English language skills.
"I'm not here for my GED," says Diallo. "I already have my B.A. in Engineering from my country. I want to improve my reading and writing. I wanted to come learn English."
And the future is even brighter. Instead of vocational students coming to Continuing Ed., the classroom will be brought to their vocational training site.
"In January our I-BEST program opens," says Lindem. "It integrates vocational training with our popular basic skills classes."
Yolanda, whose long road in education involved motherly advice, finding shoes to wear and hours of reading textbook after textbook, loves her job.
"This place, this new program, it's becoming almost magical," says Yolanda. "People can finally answer their dreams."