They Beat The Odds! Stories of Success and Perseverance Among PCCC's Class of 2012
Thursday, May 24, 2012 • 5:02pm
PATERSON, NJ - Maria Pagan’s schedule didn’t seem to have room for her to go college.
But one week after she started work as a clerk at Passaic County Community College’s Center for Student Success, the Paterson single mother decided to take some classes. That was in 2008 and after she gave birth to a second boy the next year her schedule became even more impossible.
“I noticed that a lot of parents used that as an excuse to stop attending school,” said Pagan, who is now 28. “I saw it as a blessing to have a second child. There are a lot of people out there who can’t have kids. So my attitude was to have faith and stay dedicated.”
On May 17, the dedication paid off for Pagan. She was among more than 600 people, including numerous Patersonians, who graduated from PCCC, representing the college’s largest graduating class.
The college, much like Paterson, takes pride in its diversity. Flags of 46 countries flew as the backdrop at the ceremony, representing the various birth nations of the graduating class.
Many of the PCCC graduates faced obstacles on their way to their degrees. Here are the stories of some of them:
Pagan had always been interested in psychology. “I always play reverse psychology, the majority with my family,” she said. It wasn’t until one day in 2008, however, that she decided to make a career in social work out of it. “I’m looking to help people out and give back to my community.”
One week after she became a clerk in the Center for Student Success, Pagan enrolled in classes herself. Having had a brief period of unemployment after giving birth to her first son, Pagan was determined to return to school. She explained that after the child’s father left she had to “be the woman and do what was right for my son. A High School Diploma doesn’t mean jack these days, in order for you to get a good career you must have your Masters.”
So Pagan weathered the difficulties of full-time work, full-time school and parenthood with “faith and determination.” This was especially true in 2009.
Her second son, Dylan Pagan,, was born on May 6, 2009. One week later Maria started her summer classes. The week after that she went back to work. She never gave up.
Her routine consisted of getting up every two hours during the night for the baby and then being up by 6 in the morning to transport her oldest child to daycare. She then went to work for 6 hours, left to pick up her sons, picked up her boyfriend from work, came home to fix dinner, bathe kids, help with homework – all before going to class from 7-9:45.
Once out of class she returned home to put the children to bed and finally at about 11:00 p.m. she began her homework, usually staying up until 1:00 a.m. to get the studies done.
Though she admits that it wasn’t easy, when asked if she ever found herself discouraged, Maria said, “No.” Her children kept her going. “My kids say wow mommy, I want to go to college! Because you did it, I want to do it!” she continued. “My three year old is excited about homework. You always have to set a good example for your kids because no matter what you’re doing, they’re looking at you.”
Maria plans to begin Rutger’s Social Work program this summer. “If I can do it with two kids, then I can guide others.”
Sarrie Bailey is a woman of strong faith. “I know there is a God,” she said. “I couldn’t have done what I did otherwise.”
For 17 years of her adult life, Sarrie was incarcerated for drug dealing. Last week, she graduated from PCCC with her certificate in Human Services to be a Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor. She has been on the Dean’s List twice and plans to continue her education at a four-year college for a degree.
“My goal is to one day be the director of a drug facility,” she explaining that she was motivated by the desire to help others who suffer from drug addiction and abuse as she once did.
Twenty years ago, Sarrie could not have conceived of ever going to college. She had dropped out of Camden High School in tenth grade. “I thought school wasn’t for me anymore,” she said. She became pregnant at age 18 and gave birth to her son, Sa-Rhon.
At one point, she enrolled in computer classes at Camden County, but dropped out of that, too. “I just didn’t have the patience for it at the time,” she said. Working only odd jobs and struggling, she became drug user and later a dealer.
“I made my money that way,” she said. As a result, she landed in prison. “It was hell,” she said of that period in her life.
When she was released in 2008, Sarrie entered a halfway house in Paterson and was able to attend college at PCCC. “I started as a part-time student, because I was scared of failure,” she explained.
Sarrie started classes at the developmental level and soon found herself succeeding. “It felt wonderful when I made the Dean’s List,” she said. “I called everyone I knew…there weren’t enough people for me to call.”
Growing up in Camden with her mother, father, grandmother and eight siblings, Sarrie described a lively close-knit, church-going family. “I was very close to my grandmother,” she recalled. “My grandmother always wanted a good education for all of us.”
The family saw its share of tragedy when one of Sarrie’s sisters died young from diabetes and a brother was murdered in 1996. Sarrie also witnessed the negative effects of drug use when some of her neighborhood friends died from overdosing. Then, she became involved, too, and her life spiraled downward.
“I never lost my faith in God,” she says. “Even when I was doing drugs and selling drugs…even in prison, I had faith.”
While Sarrie was in prison, her son, whom she calls “my pride and joy” was raised by his father’s family. It was her grandmother, now deceased, who kept Sarrie strong through her incarceration. “She believed in me.”
She said she found that kind of support again at PCCC. “This college is great, remarkable, fantastic,” said Sarrie. “It’s like a family here. They help you navigate and open doors for you.”
She is particularly grateful to Dawn Norman of EOF (Educational Opportunity Fund), for directing her to the EOF tutoring lab. “That lab is what got me on the Dean’s List,” she said. Sarrie called Dr. Steven Rose “an excellent college president” and said “Dean (William) Morrison is one of the best people I met here. They all listen and have concern for students.”
Grateful for the opportunity to turn her life around, Sarrie has gained insight about her past, particularly her incarceration. “I realized that using drugs was the real prison, I was my own prison,” she said.
Drawn to a career as an addiction counselor,as a way of giving back for what she has received, Sarrie said, “People need people. People were there for me when I needed help, so I want to be there for others and tell them that there’s always hope.”
Maria and Yamelaine Garcia
The twins entered PCCC together in 2008. They took most of their classes together. Both majored in pre-professional scientific, were inducted into the honor society at the same ceremony, and graduated together last week with the same degree and major.
“People confuse us all the time,” said Maria who is one minute older than her identical twin. The 20-year-old sisters plan to enter Rutgers University in September where they’ll both prepare for careers as clinical lab scientists, the same career path their mother followed.
“I love science,” said Yamelaine, known as Yame. “It’s engaging.” Maria agreed.
“I really enjoy dissections,” she said. “We dissected crayfish, squid, and lots of other things. It felt powerful…like surgery.”
Professor Kala Mayur, who had both women in her biology class, described Yame and Maria as “good and hardworking students who had to overcome some obstacles to reach their goals.”
The twins were born in the Dominican Republic where their father was an orthopedic physician. The family emigrated to the United States when Maria and Yame were nearly twelve.
They knew little English and enrolled in their new school mid-year, taking English-As-A-Second Language (ESL) classes. “It was hard to catch up,” said Yame who watched television to improve her language skills.
The Paterson residents are graduates of Eastside High School and have an older sister, Daysiling, who had also attended PCCC.
Though they took college classes together, Yame said they didn’t study or do assignments together very much. “We have different learning styles,” she explained. “Maria gets things faster, and I need more time to absorb material.”
Maria has special regard for math Professor Radha Sankahran. “She makes math fun,” said Maria. “You can feel her passion for math, and she makes you passionate for it, too.” Yame could not single out just one professor as a favorite.
“They have different styles, and you appreciate and learn from that,” she said.
Maria and Yame are both members of the science club and participated in other campus activities, finding PCCC congenial and friendly. “I like that at PCCC you get to know everyone and it feels like a family,” said Maria.
Yame thought that attending community college was a helpful preparation for a four-year college. “It’s a way to test the experience without going to such a big school first,” she said.
Though they graduate this week, the sisters will continue their campus jobs over the summer. “No vacations for us,” laughed Maria, who is a work study in the science department where she sets up the labs. Yame works part-time in the chemistry department doing the preparations for experiments.
Are they nervous about going to Rutgers in the Fall? “A little, but we’ll be going together,” said Yame. Maria added, “It’s exciting, but we’re really going to miss PCCC.”
Thirty years ago being selected as the Valedictorian of his class was the furthest thing from John Heirs’ imagination. Though he graduated high school as something of an academic star, shortly after beginning pre-med coursework he realized that his non-scholastic interests outweighed the scholastic. So, he left his state college to enjoy life in Southern California and a fruitful career; first in the stock market and then in the restaurant industry.
It wasn’t until his wife of more than two decades returned to school for her business degree that Heirs decided to finish what he started so many years before. In 2009, he enrolled in Passaic County Community College’s English Program.
When asked why he chose English, Heirs said, “I’ve always been a de facto writer, or wordsmith.” Now that he has earned his Associates, he plans to complete his Masters of Teaching work at either Rutgers or Columbia, for a second career as an English teacher. John believes that a teaching position will allow him a meaningful career in his later years and also “serve as a foundation” to continue his writing.
Did he regret not doing it sooner? “No,” he said, “I still have plenty of time and no regrets.” And most importantly to Heirs, he said if he had finished the biology program and finished med school never would have met his wife.
When asked what was the most important thing he learned from this experience, Heirs said, “that I could do it and do it well.”
The valedictorian, a resident of Totowa, admitted his early doubts. “I hadn’t been to school in thirty years.” But the fine instructors he encountered at PCCC quickly alleviated them.
Heirs described them as “dedicated and talented; not one disappointment in the group.” In his opinion, community college instructors are “generally more attentive so you end up with a better experience than you do at a four-year where there is more emphasis on writing, research and publication.”
In the end, Heirs said that his 30 years of experience prior to the start of college gave him something of an advantage in perspective over the many 19 and 20 year olds in his class, which he attributes in part to his success in becoming class Valedictorian.
While grateful for the accolade, according to John, the real success stories are those who didn’t have the benefits he’d accumulated over 30 years, and struggled through to the finish line despite their obstacles.
[Editor's Note: This article includes material written by the Passaic County Community College public information staff.]