Back to Where It All Began: West Hills Alums Give Back to their Alma Mater

Maya Angelou wrote: “When you learn, teach. When you get, give.” These words ring true for two West Hills College alumna, both of whom gained life lessons, support and encouragement from West Hills College and have come back to reinvest that in their alma maters.

Reyna Gonzalez’s story started when she was in high school. The teenager first became acquainted with West Hills College Coalinga when she joined the Upward Bound program, a federal program at WHCC that offers first generation, low income students the ability to take college classes while also getting guidance and tutoring, live in the WHCC dorms during the summer and overall a shot at starting on the pathway to a college education.

She was set to attend UCLA when she hit a diversion in her education pathway: she became pregnant her senior year of high school. However, thanks to the connections she made at West Hills, she had a plan.

“At the time, I thought I knew what I wanted to do but I got lost because I was pregnant and that’s a big factor for a lot of students in the Valley,” she said. “They try to go to a four year or have other plans but then get pregnant. Life happens. But what I learned from West Hills is that it’s ok to fall sometimes. We’re here to help you get back up.”

According to Gonzalez, the staff and faculty at West Hills College Coalinga made all the difference in keeping her on track as she faced being a student and a single parent. This included the TRiO program staff, something which stuck with her.

She graduated with her associate’s degree from WHCC in 2006. The following year, she applied for and got a job as an assistant for WHCC’s TRiO program and she’s been here ever since. Even the idea of applying for the job came from a member of the TRiO staff Gonzalez knew as a student. And, she said, the idea of helping the program that helped her was appealing then and has only become more important as she’s seen her efforts pay off in the form of graduating students.

“Our students often don’t have family members that attended college and it’s easy to get lost,” she said. “They don’t have that older brother who will help you go to a four year school. So we serve as that older brother or sister. We help them get on the right path. Because of my experiences as a single mom and as a first generation student, I’m able to connect with students. I share my story with them.”

Another alumna who has given back to her school is Brittney Juarez. A 2004 graduate of West Hills College Lemoore, she first became involved with the 5c Experience Summer Camp while she was a student. She served as a mentor for the two week summer camp for incoming 6th to 8th graders, which aims to help them learn about college through classes, college mentors and engaging them in a dynamic college curriculum.

“I became interested in the camp after taking an "Introduction to Teaching" class which James Preston (5C Coordinator and WHCL Vice President of Educational Services) taught,” said Juarez. “It sounded like a wonderful opportunity to start working with kids and be able to take part and make a difference in my community while I was still at West Hills with my schooling. I knew I wanted to be a teacher and I looked forward to any opportunity that would allow me to work with students.”

Juarez started out in 5C as a mentor while at WHCL and then became a 5C teacher.

However, even after graduating, she’s continued to be a big part of the program. She is now a teacher for the Hanford Elementary School District and in the summer gives back to the 5C program as a 5C MC, essentially one of the developers of the camp schedule. As a 5C MC she helps each summer with camp set up, class ideas and lesson planning as well as hiring mentors. She also helps lead the camp and organize the behind the scenes details.

For Juarez, being part of 5C is all about giving back and returning the support she got while she was a student helping with the program.

“I come back every year to 5C because of the relationships I am able to build, both with students and the 5C staff, she said. “I run into past campers, some of whom are now adults and college students themselves, while out in our community and they love to share stories about 5C and the impact it had on their lives. It is those stories that keep me wanting to be a part of it each year. We are able to show these students that college is in their future. It is even more exciting when the campers return as mentors. That is the true testament to this program and how it has impacted the youth of our surrounding communities. They want to come back and help kids in a program that they themselves found impactful.”