Californians tell their stories
of getting in, dropping out,
and making it through
Postcards from the College Journey
Californians tell their stories of getting in, dropping out, and making it through
Geography matters in how likely you are to go to college or earn a degree. In California, more than one in three residents has a bachelor’s degree. But in many of the state’s rural Central Valley counties, not even one in five do.
The valley, in fact, is home to four of the six counties in the state where fewer than 15 percent of adults over 25 have a four-year degree. We traveled there to talk with people about their experiences with college as part of our year-long series that focuses on telling the stories of Californians who live in parts of the state where college-going has long lagged behind. (Read the first and second set of interviews in this series.)
What really gets in the way of college dreams? What barriers are too high, what needs are more pressing? And how do others find their way? What, or who, keeps them going? Why do they persevere?
Photos by Salgu Wissmath and Nick Fouriezos. Interviews by Nick Fouriezos.
Gemini Lopez & Michael Dinkins
‘There aren’t many ways to get out’
Gemini Lopez, a running back, and Michael Dinkins, a cornerback and wide receiver, are 19-year-old teammates playing football and studying business at Merced College.
Lopez: We played on the same team together at Le Grand High School, about a half hour away. It’s a small community, very rural, not much to do. We’ve got a few other classmates who decided to go to school here, but most people went straight into working.
Dinkins: Of course, we’re not happy we’re in Merced. Got a few small offers to play at other JUCOs [junior colleges]. I looked at Modesto. But then I would have had to drive out there every day, like an hour each way. Or pay for student housing.
Lopez: Business is a big field, so not exactly sure what I’ll do if football doesn’t work out. I’m not even thinking about it right now.
Dinkins: Just focused on football. The goal is the same it’s always been: Transfer to a Division 1 school, just keep playing. I’ve lived here my whole life, so I’m ready to leave. I want to see the world. I want to travel.
If football doesn’t work out, I’ll probably do heavy machinery. Forklifts, that sort of thing. I was always interested in that. I’d need to go and get the certificate but don’t need another degree or anything.
Most kids in Le Grand, their families have small businesses, so they work in agriculture, or have farms that they go and work in straight out of school.
There aren’t many ways to get out. If you have money, you can. But otherwise, it’s tough.
— Interview and photo by Nick Fouriezos
‘It felt like something I should have accomplished’
Margaret Salas, 68, works in the counseling office at Merced College and has an associate degree from Merced College and a bachelor’s degree in business from California State University, Stanislaus.
My parents were migrant workers from Texas who thought high school was enough. I was an honors student, but we were very sheltered. Without that emotional support, I was afraid.
This was in the ‘70s, and it always bothered me, because my best friends had gone and gotten degrees.
Instead, I worked as an instructional aide in a rural school for three years. I married my husband at 24. Kept working, had two kids. And then, when my daughter was in high school, the thought about going to college just popped into my head. I was tired of working minimum wage jobs, and hoped to be able to make more. But it was also just a personal goal: It felt like something I should have accomplished right out of high school, and didn’t.
I was worried about how I was going to juggle it. I worked part-time, had a family. I didn’t know financial aid would be available. I thought about how long it would take. But I ran it by a teacher, and she told me, “The years are going to go by anyway.” At that point, I had been out of school for 30 years. I wondered, ‘Can I really compete with these kids?’ So I took one political science class to test the waters, and when I got an A, I said, “Yeah, this is it.”
It took me a total of six years, and my daughter always said I was raining on her parade: When I graduated with my associate’s, she was graduating high school. When I finished my bachelor’s, she was graduating from Merced College with an associate’s degree — she later received a B.A. in anthropology from UC Merced and is now changing her career plans, getting a second degree in networking from Fresno City College.
One regret I have is that I never really used my business degree: We had a home, my husband had a job as a custodian established here, it was hard for me to move to where the jobs were. But it was worth it, and I’m shocked how many students think they can’t go because of the finances — if you’re low-income, it’s surprising how many people in California can qualify. My daughter and I graduated with no student loans.
— Interview by Nick Fouriezos. Photo by Salgu Wissmath.
Trinaty Ann Renee
‘It’s just not for me‘
Trinaty Ann Renee, 28, is a bartender in Visalia who takes classes part-time at College of the Sequoias.
In general, I think college is a scam. It costs an insane amount of money to get a degree, and then you aren’t going to be able to get a job with your degree. Now you’re in debt, and, nowadays, there are some entry- level jobs requiring master’s degrees and graduate degrees. I think it’s just another way for America to make something corporate.
I don’t mean to shame anybody who decides a four-year university is for them, it’s just not for me. My sister just graduated from Los Angeles-Pacific University. She worked very hard for it. But it costs so much money. She had a great experience … and she’s going to be in debt her entire life.
I do love knowledge, and I love learning new things. I qualify for a shit ton of financial aid as a single mother over 25, I don’t pay anything, and get paid about $8,000 extra to go. You have to be full time, and get good grades. I’m like three credits short of graduating, but I take different classes each semester, so that I don’t get the degree — this next semester, I’m thinking about taking sewing.
I just don’t think we live in the same day and age that we did 20 years ago. Where college was the goal: You go to college, start a family, buy a house. I can’t afford a house. I just don’t think we should place such importance on it. It’s way too much pressure on these fucking kids.
I’m going to be a career bartender. I’m in love with the bar culture, and I am really good at it. In my last job, I specialized in prohibition-style cocktails. I would love to open my own bar somewhere.
— Interview by Nick Fouriezos. Photos by Salgu Wissmath.
‘I spent almost the whole decade inside trying to better myself’
Carlos Romo, 30, earned his associate degree at the California Correctional Center and is now remotely enrolled in a fire sciences bachelor’s degree program at California State University, Los Angeles.
I was incarcerated at 18, and was released in September 2021 – and two days later, I was on the Lassen campus.
You have a lot of time to think about things, and I decided in my early 20s that getting an education would be key. I spent almost the whole decade inside trying to better myself. Participate in classes, go to college. But I just couldn’t get in anywhere. It was really hard. The process was too long, or I couldn’t get the textbooks, or even the Scantrons that I needed.
It wasn’t until CCC that I ended up getting into a good college program. I stopped by the CCC firehouse, and could see they were pro-education. It was a whole different environment. I didn’t expect to be able to go outside of the prison and respond to emergencies as an actual firefighter.
I got used to it: I was already committed anyway, and I knew I wanted to get my degree. I started the program back in 2020, and ended up graduating in the fall of 2021. When you have all day just to study, you can make it happen for sure.
I’m continuing my education, and I just got accepted to CSU Los Angeles. The thing about the fire classes is that those are offered online, asynchronous. So that’s perfect for me, as I can keep doing my career as a firefighter for CAL Fire here, and still continue my education.
Transitioning out of prison was a little easier because I had been going out into the community for the last two years at the firehouse. We would fight fires, go to traffic collisions, answer medical calls, you know, deal with the public. Sometimes evacuations. Being around people was great.
I used to think my parents didn’t encourage much education. But as I’ve gotten older, I realized that they probably wanted us to pursue it, but they just never said it. They never finished college or even high school, they came to the United States when they were young. They wanted me to succeed, but just being immigrants, they didn’t really know how.
As a first generation American, I have to kind of figure things out. I’m the oldest of six kids, and I have one little brother that is doing a vocational technical school, but the rest are in their 20s and started working immediately without any other education.
I work 24-hour-shifts, three times a week, I’m taking five classes right now, I hardly have any downtime to myself. I know for sure I can be a mentor someday. But, at this moment in my life, I’ve been away for so long. I feel like I’ve still got to prove myself, lead by example, and then provide some advice after they see my success.
— Interview and photo by Nick Fouriezos
‘It’s about the collective experience’
Jeremiah Storment, 22, is from Kings County and initially attended West Hills College Lemoore. He is now in his second year studying music at the College of the Sequoias.
This is the closest place to me that offered music. I wanted to learn theory. I had been to college when I was 18, but I dropped out because I was just jamming with the homies. I was getting good grades, but I just felt like it was so boring. I just thought: “I don’t want to be here.”
Going back to school, it was mainly to make connections. To play music with people. I don’t plan on transferring to a four-year college. Unless I come up on some money, I just don’t see it happening. But I knew there was something to gain by coming.
It’s about the collective experience. You meet different people you know, the days go by, and you have an experience. I’m in a jazz band here, and before I knew very little about jazz. I knew jazz musicians are “big brain,” so I just threw myself in to try to get something out of it.
I play the drums. Genre-wise, it’s usually a mix. It’s whatever I’m feeling. I need to figure out how to monetize my stuff and come up with a solid plan. There are snippets here and there of my education that feel valuable. But I’m also learning more of my own discipline. Just looking back, realizing what’s lacking – usually it’s deeper than just college. You can learn things from classes, but you can also just take things from being there.
— Interview by Nick Fouriezos
‘I switched majors anyway’
Jo Cook is a 19-year-old from Tulare County, studying art at the College of the Sequoias.
I was working at Target during the holidays, and I was talking to an art teacher that had come through my lane. She was buying stuff for her students, and we talked about art, and how much she loves her job. She had switched careers from something else into art, and she is so much happier, because she’s finally enjoying her passion, right?
And I was like, dang, I really don’t want to do nursing. And I’ve always liked painting. In school, I had an English project. I asked the teacher if I could paint instead of writing a report — she said yeah, and she still has it and displays it to all of her new students.
My parents really dislike the idea. My mom was an artist. She liked art in college too, and didn’t make money with it, and that’s why she switched careers — she works with the county now, and my dad works in waste management.
I don’t get any financial aid because of their income. And I’m in a tough situation with them because they’re holding finances over me, since I still live with them because I can’t afford to live anywhere else.
For a while I was working at two jobs. Target, like 30 hours a week, plus another 30 hours waitressing. That was last semester, and I was super drained and exhausted. It really took a toll on my mental health.
I’ve struggled with depression, and I’ve been in therapy for a while. I should not have been in school. It was a lot of pressure for me, especially since I started as a nursing major because that’s what my parents were telling me would be a good career to get into.
I switched majors anyway. I’m getting my associate’s in art, but I’m going to transfer to get a bachelor’s degree in art education. My dream is Chico State, but I’m also looking at the Fresno State satellite campus here that has a teaching credential for art. If I were to move to Chico, I would have the costs of moving and would have to also be working … although then I could maybe qualify for aid, which would help.
— Interview by Nick Fouriezos. Photo by Salgu Wissmath.
‘It was a big no, no’
Luz Gonzalez, 29, is a Madera County native and works in sales in the Fresno region.
I didn’t go to college because I used to be a Jehovah’s Witness and we were brainwashed into thinking that preaching about Armageddon was our purpose.
I am the daughter of immigrants, the youngest of five children. In Madera, there are three or four Spanish congregations. Every summer, we were sent to Bakersfield for a three-day weekend, and they would rent out this huge arena with like thousands of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
There, the young adults were taught that this life is borrowed, and that it’s best to live your life preaching Jehovah versus going to school, which won’t take you anywhere in the long run. Get an education, and that would mean getting a career that would take you away from the meetings … it was a big no, no.
I started homeschooling after my dad was deported when I was 14. My mom was working seasonal jobs, and taking us to Jehovah Witness assemblies when she wasn’t. When I was 18, she told me that I needed to get a job or go to school. I didn’t really know how it worked, but I picked journalism as my major because I remembered my dad always turning on the news, and there would be these very likable and very charismatic women on the TV. I figured I could travel, I could write.
I loved that first year of college. For the first time, I was interacting with lots of new faces, people who thought differently than I did. In my personal life everything was very controlled and repetitive. I got to see exactly how much diversity there was. At a community college, you see all these different age groups, too. There, I learned how to be professional. My favorite class was psychology. In my faith, they didn’t teach us about science, they actually condemned it.
I ended up having to move out because of my home situation: My older brother drank a lot, and kind of spiraled out of control after my dad was deported. I moved in with my boyfriend at the time, who I had been dating for three months, but I felt like I couldn’t do both work and school. I just felt like, if things didn’t work out between us, I needed to have money. So I stopped going, and started working two jobs.
One was in retail, first as a cashier, but they saw that I was really good at selling — I could sell people on donating to charity, signing up for credit cards. That’s where I realized I had a knack for sales. Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t take no for an answer.
— Interview by Nick Fouriezos
‘I was open to anything’
Yemíma Rodriguez, 20, is a biology major from Guatemala attending Lassen Community College who planned to transfer to either the University of California, Santa Cruz or Evangel University, in Missouri.
It’s a very different culture. You don’t see it until you arrive. Sometimes people would get angry at me, or I would get angry at them, and it was just a misunderstanding. People used to say, “Yeah, that’s the Mexican girl,” and I corrected them. I was asked if I was a Democrat or a Republican, and I was like, “I’m a Guatemalan?”
After high school, I was open to anything, going to Europe, taking a year off to work. But while I was graduating in May 2020, the soccer coach at Lassen College reached out to me. There are a lot of international students, especially the athletes in the dorms here. We all just came together and were figuring it out.
I’ve been studying English since I was young, so I helped a lot of the others understand classes — not just tutoring, but translating everything. There’s a local prison, where I’ve been helping translate at, too. A friend of mine from Spain was recently arrested, so sometimes the attorney reaches out. “I can’t understand the one translator,’ he says, ‘can you come and help?”
I had never been to Lassen County before enrolling, but I’ve loved it here in Susanville: I just like going on walks, on trails, sometimes biking. There’s not much to do, to be truthful, but we’ve found a way to have fun, play around, go to church.
I’ve always loved the research part of biology. My country needs a lot of help, especially with environmental issues. We have all these resources, but we don’t know exactly how to take care of them, and there’s a need for professionals in these areas. That’s where my heart still is: I’d like to get my education here, do the research, and then go back.
— Interview and photo by Nick Fouriezos
‘I knew I had to go to college’
Danny Malone, 19, is from Tulare County and is studying music at the College of the Sequoias.
I’m a multi-instrumentalist: I play the bass, a little bit of piano, violin, and I can drum. I’ve got a really good sense of rhythm.
I’m in all the ensembles we have to offer: jazz band, symphonic band, symphonic orchestra, music theater. I have a lot of different traits, and I want to use music to teach other kids how to express themselves in different ways.
Here in the Central Valley, we’re often not really given that choice. We have really good instructors and smart professors who try to work with us, but there’s a gap between the music students and the professors. We get each other, but everybody has a different mentality.
It’s a generational thing. There’s this sense from the teachers that you’re always supposed to practice, you’re always supposed to be getting things done. But we’re a really lax generation, I feel, and we want to indulge in a more feeling type of sense. We have a different mentality, and different relationship, different goals, with music.
The idea is that I’ll graduate and have a degree, but I’m also going to cultivate a lot of experiences throughout this time. I’d like to be a conductor and teach classical music. A lot of people dread teaching little kids. But if you can impact kids at that level, it helps to build them into musicians later on. I’ve had a lot of teachers and conductors that have helped me build my sense of self. It’s not just music. It’s life things, too.
I’m here because I knew I had to go to college. That’s just something that was always embedded in me by my parents. My dad was a labor worker in construction, he only graduated high school. My mom works in insurance and she did get a degree, but in medicine, so she never really used it.
I’m not going to say they were against me going into music, but they were definitely more excited when I said I wanted to get a doctorate in psychology instead of a doctorate in performance cello or performance jazz. I’m trying to teach guitar lessons, bass, jazz. I’m working at the mall right now. I’m going to school. It’s tough, but I definitely think it’s going to pay off in the long run.
The payoff. That’s what a lot of people miss out on, and they don’t want to vouch for college.
But a lot of people fall off, and they’re just like: “It’s not worth it, and I’m not worth it.” And the truth is, in this society, you need it. You need an education to really profit and in order to understand how to survive in this world.
— Interview by Nick Fouriezos
These conversations were conducted in May 2022. The reporting was made possible with support from College Futures Foundation.