Last spring, I enrolled at LaGuardia Community College. For years Ihad wanted to prove to myself that I am smart enough to get a college degree. I never felt like I had the chance to finish school because I didn’t have anyone to count on when I was young. My birth family gave me up and my adoptive family abused me.
But after 20 years of using drugs, I went to treatment and began attending a GED program. Despite failing the exam eight times in three years, I stayed focused on my goal.
It is truly a dream come true for me to be attending college. I love going to school and learning new and difficult things.
Focused on My Goal
My major is mental health. I am thinking of becoming a substance abuse counselor, helping women who are in recovery and trying to get their children out of foster care. As a recovering addict (I have almost seven years clean), I had to regain custody of my beautiful daughter and prove for three years that I was ready to have her returned from foster care.
As a counselor, I hope I can provide the same faith that my preventive worker, my drug counselor, my teachers from the GED program, and my friends had in me. I don’t want to just be an example to other women but I want to give them the courage and motivation to continue through any obstacles they face. If I can help mothers in recovery feel like they have support, they can fight for their children to come home.
I am looking forward to going into the workforce to help others and to support my family and be an example to my daughter Lydia. I want to graduate and wear the blue cap and gown. I want to see my daughter’s face as I walk down the aisle. She and my husband Hector, who went through recovery with me, will come to see me graduate. I’ve already planned that Lydia and I will get our hair done and get dressed up.
Daddy Steps Up
I thought college would be easy compared to what I’ve been through. But it’s not. My college days are very stressful. I cannot rest.
The hardest part for me is that being a full-time student does not allow me to keep the position of full-time parent that I used to enjoy. I wake up at 5 or 6 a.m. so I can get ready and then I wake up my daughter. I try to pick classes that start at 10 or 10:30 so I can take her to school. Hector picks Lydia up after school and takes her home.
Before I enrolled, I wasn’t sure that I could count on Hector to take care of Lydia. It has been a blessing that he has come through. But it has also been hard for us all to adjust.
I try to be home by 5 to help Lydia with her homework, but last semester I had to take a later class. To make it as easy as possible for Hector and Lydia, I put her clothes out on the living room couch so she could change out of her school uniform. I always called on my break at 3:15. But some days she would have a problem with doing her homework and her father would get upset because he wanted her to finish. Hector sometimes talks to Lydia with such a harsh voice that she gets scared.
When I called I would hear her little voice whimpering into the phone. It hurt me so much that I could not help her. “Put Daddy on the phone,” I would say.
I’d tell him, “Forget it. Let her finish it with me. And don’t yell at her.”
“I’m not yelling,” he would say.
“Well, take it easy because I cannot stand hearing her cry.” That is a big issue for me, hearing my little Shrimpie cry when I believe she wouldn’t be crying if I were home.
Helping Each Other
But Hector truly helps me so much. He picks Lydia up from school and helps her with her with homework. He takes her to appointments and to eat pizza, which is her favorite. Daddy is doing his job and he is getting better at it. He even takes her riding on her scooter around the neighborhood. I’m glad to see that they have grown closer.
When I get home I make sure Lydia has done her homework, and if not, she does it while I cook and then I do my homework while the food is on the stove. (I try to cook for my family on at least two weekdays, and we get takeout if we can afford it.) After dinner, while she is reading, I work on my papers.
We live in a small apartment, but it’s not that bad. If I really need to study, Hector takes care of Lydia and keeps her entertained. They watch “The Simpsons” together or play games. I make sure I say, “Thank you for helping me,” because we all need to help each other.
On the weekends, my daughter and I sleep in a little. On Saturdays we go to church for catechism classes and art activities for the children. On Sundays we go to mass and spend time with the nuns or the priest talking about our troublesome cat or other issues we have. The church is our family. There I find peace and have time with my daughter.
We also like to play on the computer, cook, or just sit back with a bag of popcorn and watch a DVD. The time I spend with my daughter is very important. I have her help me with simple things in the kitchen or in the house so we’re together. The main thing I truly miss is picking up my Lydia from school. I miss that so much.
A Tough Class
The most challenging part of college is to being on top what I need to study and completing my papers on time. I have learned how to study during any free time I have. I read on the train to school and the train home, and I read in class before the professor arrives. Between classes I go to the College Discovery Lab to type my papers or just ask the tutors for help to make sure I understand the subject completely.
I’ve struggled in some of my classes. Math is the most difficult subject for me, and I hate it. (It was the math I failed on the GED so many times.) But I have to complete a math course to graduate.
Then there’s the class I just finished—English 101. I truly struggled. On my first paper the professor gave me an F and on the second I got a D. I was in shock. I’d never received such a low grade. But in the end I got a B in her class. I just kept trying and asking her for help.
The final paper was a research paper on global warming. Oh my God, I knew nothing about this subject or about Al Gore, and we had to use his book, An Inconvenient Truth. After I read the book, I did not know what to do for my paper. I kept looking on different websites to find more information about Al Gore and about what we can do in our communities to prevent global warming.
Asking for Help
I decided to write my paper about recycling and brought my proposal to my professor because I did not know if I was on the right track. I told her, “I am having difficulty doing this research because I do not understand what kind of research you expect.”
“Tell me about your ideas,” she said.
Then I asked her, “Can I focus on how our neighborhood could do more to fight global warming?”
That turned out to be fine. I started with my building—I took pictures—and I created a survey to find out who in my neighborhood does and does not recycle. I even asked the Sanitation Department, through their website, to mail me decals and booklets about recycling. Finally, I did research on the effects of global warming that we might not see and wrote in my paper about how higher temperatures are affecting polar bears and the polar ice caps.
Turning It Around
I ended up getting an A- and my professor was proud of me. She even requested a copy of my paper to keep as an example for other students because it was good. I am very proud of my work in that class. I felt stupid in the beginning, but as I took on the challenge, it became easier for me.
(I also learned a lot about global warming! Now we use energy efficient light bulbs and unplug our appliances at night, and I’m saving money on our electricity bill.)
It hurts me when I do poorly on a paper or fail a quiz or an exam. But it just means that I need to study more and ask for help. I earned a 3.22 GPA last semester and I plan to try my best to get a higher GPA this session.
Another difficulty in college has to do with my peers. It’s important to me to make friends with my classmates, but it’s not easy. The sessions go so fast and there is really no contact between classmates besides talking about what papers are due and asking, “What was your score on the test?”
Many of the students are much younger than me and unprepared. In my psychology class one girl sat next to me and was always late and asking to borrow my notes and a pen, or even some paper. It was so annoying. I’d think, “Duh! Hello? You are going to college! This is not kindergarten. You should never be late and you should always have paper and something to write with!”
I tried to ignore her, but I felt guilty because she knew I never left home without my stapler, highlighter, pens, paper and textbooks, and she would tap me if I didn’t respond. I want to be in class with other students who are as eager to learn as I am, but that hasn’t always been the case.
No Time to Relax
I’ve also found it challenging that I see cheating going on during exams. Here I am making sure that I practice for the test and studying hard, and then other people are being so dishonest and taking an easy way out.
My classmates usually say, “Oh, just leave it alone and do not worry about it.” But once I did tell a professor through e-mail because I just did not think it was fair. The professor thanked me. Another time, a classmate wrote his answers on his arm with a pen in the hallway. I actually found it funny because everyone happened to see it and the professor found out.
I’m trying not to pay attention to these annoyances so I can just focus on finishing my work and maintaining my sanity. There are days when I don’t even feel like crawling out of bed to go school. Or I’ll be in class wishing I were at home just relaxing.
It feels like my mind and body are crying out, “Sylvia, slow down.” But then I look over at my little angel and I remember that I want to do this for her, for her father and for myself. It’s hard but we manage because we all know that we are going somewhere together.
‘Mommy, What Are You Reading?’
I tell Lydia, “Get your education. You will need it. You can go to college like me. Never give up on school, no matter what happens.” I want her to have the education she’ll need to be successful in the field that she chooses.
Lydia says she wants to go to college and become a vet. She always is checking out books about animals from the library.
Reading and studying together is a new kind of quality time that she and I have now. She often asks me, “Mommy, what are you reading about?”
Not long ago I was reading about Hindus in India for my sociology class. I told Lydia, “They believe that cows are very sacred, the same we as Catholics believe that the Blessed Mother, The Virgin Mary, is sacred. They allow cows to roam the streets as they please.” We found it so weird and fascinating that they never use cows’ milk or eat cows even if they are starving because that is considered a sin.
I also told Lydia, “They use cow dung for fuel. The women use it to cook with and they say their fires last longer than coal fires.” We found it interesting that, in different cultures, what they consider normal may not be normal for us. I like learning new things and helping my daughter learn with me.
‘I Know You Try’
Lydia is also learning from the studying techniques I’ve discovered. I make flash cards to study simple definitions. My daughter gives me small quizzes. She really likes helping me and encourages me when a test is coming up. I love to hear so interested in me going to school.
“Wish me luck,” I say.
“Mommy, let me see your A on your test,” she tells me.
“Wow,” I think to myself, “she really expects me to reach such high goals.”
I say, “Will you be happy if I do not get A but get a B? Because that is also good.”
“That is OK, too, Mommy. I know you try hard.”