Jenessa Ramirez felt like giving up.
At times, juggling 18 units with two full-time jobs, while living out of a suitcase and bouncing from an air mattress in someone’s guest room to a trailer to an apartment in the wake of the Camp Fire, the aspiring teacher wondered why she was working so hard.
“I thought, ‘I could give up and keep making coffee for a living,’” she said. “‘That wouldn’t be so bad.’”
Then, one brisk morning last fall, she was sitting in her car scrolling through emails while she waited for her 8 a.m. class. One message caught her eye, with a notification that she had just been awarded the Paradise Merit Scholarship.
Reserved for six outstanding students who lived in Paradise and experienced losses due to the Camp Fire, the scholarship was created by an anonymous couple who simply wanted to help them move forward. It provides each of them $5,000 a year for four years.
Ramirez began sobbing.
“I was in awe, to know people who don’t even know who I am are rooting for me,” she said. “It blew my mind to know that people believed in me. They don’t know if I am going to flunk out tomorrow, but they believe that I can be successful—and that makes me believe in myself.”
Bolstered by the confidence of a stranger, she’s continued pursuing her dreams and working harder than ever in school. She was also able to make her goal to study abroad a reality, living and attending school in Ireland for two months at the beginning of 2020 before COVID-19 conditions around the world forced her to return to the United States.
Ramirez lived most of her life in lower Magalia, until her mom and then-stepfather divorced and she moved in with her grandmother in Paradise. Her life, she felt, was “picture perfect, in that small-town TV show kind of way.” After graduating from Paradise High School in 2017, she enrolled at Chico State, knowing it would be a quality and affordable choice for her to become the first in her family to earn a college degree while also staying close to her loved ones.
After a brief and difficult stint majoring in biochemistry, Ramirez switched her second semester to English and had just added history as a second major in fall 2018, falling in love with the compatibility of the disciplines after a class in “Early American Literature.”
“I love education and I love learning. That’s why I want to be a teacher. I never want to leave it,” she said.
She mapped out her next three years and was pushing ahead with a 21-unit course load, busier than ever but determined to succeed.
On November 8, 2018, she drove to Chico around 7 a.m., mistaking the smoke in her rearview mirror for clouds and lamenting she didn’t have her umbrella. During her 8 a.m. class, she stepped away to answer a series of urgent texts from her boyfriend, only to learn they were being evacuated.
The next few hours are a blur, as she cycled through calls with her mom, boyfriend, and grandmother and waited for her friends and family to make it safely down the hill. All three of their homes were destroyed by the infamous blaze, scattering her family into different locations for temporary housing.
School became a welcome distraction, and Ramirez tried to keep her focus on her classes.
She continued her steadfast work in spring 2019, and again last fall, all while gradually trying to rebuild small bits of her life. She had no renter’s insurance, and her landlord was also uninsured. Her boyfriend had grabbed her laundry basket and PlayStation when he fled, but the rest of her belongings were lost to flames. A Wildcats Rise Fire Recovery Fund grant helped her purchase new clothes and essential items, but Ramirez relied heavily on financial aid and income from two jobs, working more than 30 hours a week at coffee shops, to make ends meet.
“I just felt I needed to,” she said. “I was so stressed about money.”
Ramirez had supported herself since she was 18, and after the fire, she couldn’t bring herself to ask her mother or grandmother, who were dealing with their own fire recovery, for assistance. Still, she wanted to make study abroad happen.
“In a way, the Camp Fire and going through that pushed me to study abroad,” she said. “It makes you realize time is so valuable and I don’t want to leave this life with any regrets or thoughts that I didn’t live up to its potential.”
In Dublin, Ramirez loved her classes and made friends from around the world. Even when she returned to California and underwent a 14-day quarantine, getting up at 2 a.m. for her noon classes thousands of miles away, she felt like she was finally thriving again.
“I felt like I was healed this time last year, but this second year is really like, ‘You did it,’” she said. “It made me stronger and more resilient, just like it made Paradise stronger and more resilient.”
After living on her mom’s sofa in Magalia for the rest of the spring 2020 semester, she now has an apartment with a few close friends. It’s the first time she’s had her own room since the fire.
Ramirez still marvels at her fortune to receive the Paradise Merit Scholarship, which has allowed her to go from working two jobs to one and freed up some of her time to focus on self-care, something she realized was critically important after the fire.
“It’s like someone had known what I was going through. Someone was looking out for me,” she said. “I want to make that same impact on people when I am teaching someday.”
With one year left of school, she has her eyes on getting her Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) certificate so she can teach abroad, and then earn her credential and begin making a difference in the lives of students. But for now, she keeps living in the moment, full of gratitude and hope.
“My goal for 2020 was to become more independent and focus on relationships with myself and my friends,” she said. “I’m honestly the happiest I have been in my whole life. I’m more grounded in myself and faith in knowing I’ll be OK.”