Earning Her Degree, Virtually
Yesenia Jones didn’t let life get in the way of achieving her dream
When Yesenia Jones crosses the stage at Commencement this Saturday, it will be the first time the sociology major has ever set foot on the Chico State campus.
With a dream in mind, she completed her coursework entirely online, balancing her studies with a full-time job and duties as a wife and mother in Sacramento. To finally earn her bachelor’s degree—two months before her 30th birthday—is an achievement more than a decade in the making.
“It’s just a feeling I can’t even put into words. It doesn’t feel real,” she said. “My husband, of course, knows. He says, ‘I am going to cry when I see you walk down that stage.’”
As a first-generation student and second-language learner, her path to a degree has been a winding one. She’s navigated speed bumps and dodged roadblocks, her determination matched only by the same effervescent enthusiasm in which her story bubbles out of her.
Jones was born in Sacramento, where her Mexican-immigrant parents raised her with her two younger siblings and grandmother in a Spanish-speaking household that was deeply rooted in the culture of their homeland while still in pursuit of the American Dream.
“It was really a struggle for the early years of my life, figuring out where I fit in,” she said. “I was raised in a home that was completely different than the culture at school . . . I remember sitting with my parents working on homework with a dictionary, and they would be looking up words to figure out what the questions meant so I could figure out the problems.”
She excelled in school, and her peers began talking about going off to college, but she was held to a cultural expectation she would live at home until she was married. Her dreams shattered, Jones let her grades slip and lost interest in her studies.
“What was the point for me because my destiny was already figured out?” she said.
Instead, she decided she would not let the circumstances interfere with her determination to learn. She graduated near the top of her class and took courses at two community colleges nearly nonstop for 10 years, earning her AA from Consumnes River College in 2010. She also married, had her first child, and worked full time, but her sights were set higher.
Struggling to meet the math requirements for a four-year college, she kept studying putting in 14-hour days and forming weekend study groups. When she finally passed, she applied to Chico State and was put on a waitlist for the competitive online sociology program.
While she waited, she took additional classes. She went into labor with her second child in 2015 halfway through an online sociology course.
“The next morning, I called the nurses and said, ‘Can you please take my daughter to the nursery? I have a midterm to do,’” she said. “They asked if I was sure, and I said, ‘Yes, I have to work very hard on this, I can’t afford to fall back now.’”
Her push intensified when she began Chico State’s BA program that fall, working full-time during the week and studying all weekend while watching her children.
“As soon as my son started talking, he learned the word ‘lecture’ and would say that he has a paper to write,” she said, with a laugh. “They are very much a part of this journey. I remember breastfeeding my daughter while I was watching lectures and my little boy playing off to the side.”
Meanwhile, she found a new job at an independent- and assisted-living community, where she tends to the physical, mental, and emotional health needs of senior citizen residents. Jones has found a mentor in the company’s CEO, who has a master’s degree in social work.
“I have some really supportive strong women that I can go and talk to and can inspire me to keep going,” Jones said. “I’ve never been in a job where it’s admired that I’m going to school.”
Without the setting of a traditional classroom, she admittedly struggled a bit to develop the camaraderie so common when learning side-by-side with peers in a college setting. She sought out other online sociology students, often years younger than herself, for in-person meetups in Sacramento but found they didn’t always have a similar drive.
“I’m getting older and I just want to finish school,” she said. “I started pushing myself and taking more and more classes. I took summer classes and winter classes, and the next thing you know, I am a year away from graduation.”
Jones recently got more good news—she was accepted into the master’s in social work program at Sacramento State for this fall.
“I was crying. When did I ever think that little ol’ me would end up going into a graduate program?” she said. “My heart is in this. I have so much in me to contribute to this world. I just love knowledge and learning new things.”
A highlight of her academic career was earning the 2017 Academic Excellence Award from the Department of Sociology, nominated by Professor Nandi Crosby.
Jones’ ultimate goal is to be a licensed clinical social worker, maybe open up her own practice, or work in a hospital or with senior citizens.
“I want to inspire young minority women to follow their dreams,” she said. “I want my daughter to explore the world. In reality, education is not only about landing a good paying job—it’s the impact you are able to make.”