When Rachel Lajoie stepped foot into her first English class at San Diego City College in the summer of 2005, it had been eight years since she last sat at a classroom desk. Despite having traveled the world on her own and working to support herself, she was intimidated by the thought of having to write an essay or solve a math problem.
Quickly, however, those fears melted away. Lajoie seized the educational opportunities she had at City College and graduated after three years with an associate’s degree in biology.
Her academic performance was so outstanding that she earned the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation’s transfer scholarship, which paid her way through the Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing. Lajoie now works as a pediatric nurse in Calgary, Alberta, and plans to return to school for a master’s degree.
She credits all of her success to the experience she had at City College.
“It changed my life,” she said. “Not only did I gain confidence and experience and knowledge, I also gained the most amazing mentors.”
Lajoie grew up as one of five children in a working-class family in Windsor, Ontario. Her father worked on the line at the Chrysler plant, while her mother stayed home to raise the children. After graduating from high school, Lajoie did not have firm career plans, so she decided to travel.
“Our family has a strong work ethic, but none of us went the traditional route of going to college right after high school,” Lajoie said.
She moved to Vancouver to work and save money before spending a year traveling independently throughout Asia and South America. She then returned to North America and lived in Montreal, New York and Virginia before moving to San Diego with her then-husband. The couple had a child, but their marriage was on the rocks, and Lajoie soon realized she would not be able to support her family by working two or three low-paying jobs. That’s when she started thinking about going back to school.
Lajoie said she chose City College for its affordability and its exciting urban setting. Financial aid and scholarships helped ensure that she could attend classes during the day, but attending school full-time while also raising two young children was no small feat.
“I did get less sleep than I think other students did at the time,” she said. “I’d go home and didn’t do homework until the kids were in bed, and I’d be up until the wee hours studying.”
Now nine and 12 years old, respectively, Lajoie’s sons are much better off now than they would have been had she not gone back to school.
“I take a lot of pride in being a working mom,” she said. “One of the biggest values I want them to have is that their mom works hard and that they can work hard, too, and that if I’m happy and successful then they’re going to be happy and successful also.”
Kelly Mayhew was one of Lajoie’s professors in the honors program and remembers her as “one of those quiet students who would open her mouth and these brilliant things would come out.”
Lajoie’s experience of feeling intimidated when she returned to academia is common among City College students, Mayhew said, but professors encourage students to remember that everyone has a different path, and it doesn’t matter when you get on that path.
Contributing to Lajoie’s success as a student were the small class sizes and the individual attention she got from City College professors. Her participation in the honors program also encouraged her to work harder.
“Course after course, I grew more and more confident that with a little hard work and initiative, I could accomplish anything,” she said. “The mentorship that was available from every professor challenged me to think critically about both my work and the world.”
Even today, a decade after she first enrolled, Lajoie still thinks of the readings and discussions that took place in her classes at City College.
“It was there where I learned the anatomy and physiology that I use every day as a nurse,” Lajoie said. “It was there where my life experiences were brought into laser focus so that I was able to discover what I wanted to do with my life. Today, my City College roots continue to impact me in how I take care of patients, how I raise my kids, and how I make choices as a citizen. It is difficult to convey in a simple statement what City College means to me, because I truly would be who I am today if it hadn’t been for those three short years.”