By Linda Prieto, executive director of Upward Scholars
Nine months ago, Upward Scholars student Isabel Guerra earned her living cleaning other people's houses. Now, she's an administrative assistant.
Isabel's trajectory was made possible by Upward Scholars, a local nonprofit that provides financial and academic support to low-income adults, mostly immigrants, so they can continue their education in community college, get better jobs, and serve as role models and advocates for their children.
Isabel is a native of Guatemala, and after arriving in the U.S., Isabel, age 29, enrolled in ESL classes, first at Sequoia Adult School, where she took basic ESL classes, and then at Canada College where, after completing a rigorous ESL sequence, she ultimately completed freshman-level college English. She then started taking paralegal classes with a goal of obtaining her paralegal certificate.
During her three-year tenure at Canada, Upward Scholars paid for Isabel's books, which often cost several hundred dollars a semester, gave her a laptop, and provided her with a volunteer tutor, Menlo Park resident Rick Trushel.
Rick, a retired software engineer, says: "Witnessing Isabel achieve fluency in written and spoken English has been so rewarding. Seeing her honor commitments to her studies, family, and community inspires me as she puts her many talents to use in her new job."
Knowing about Isabel's outstanding academic record and her interest in legal issues, Upward Scholars staff referred her to an administrative assistant job opening at the International Institute of the Bay Area, a local nonprofit that provides immigration-related services to residents from low-income backgrounds.
"Upward Scholars made my new job possible," Isabel says. "I'm happy because, in my new job, I'll be able to help other people the way Upward Scholars helped me."
Isabel says that learning English has also made her a better mother. "I want to be able to help my children with their homework and communicate with their teachers," Isabel says. "Now that I can speak English, I have the confidence to do that."
This semester Upward Scholars is supporting 280 students at Canada College, Skyline College, and College of San Mateo, up from 220 students a year ago.
Once Upward Scholars students are proficient in English, they are primed to move from low-wage occupations (less than $18 an hour) into middle-wage occupations (between $18 and $30 an hour). After completing ESL classes, many go on to earn certificates in areas such as medical assisting, early childhood education, or bookkeeping, and a few transfer to four-year institutions.
"By giving students the support they need to take advantage of high-quality, advanced ESL classes, we're providing them with opportunities that wouldn't otherwise be available," says Upward Scholars founder Elizabeth Weal. "Our work really is life-changing."
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