In 2012, a young mother with small children tried to come back to school and finish her high school education. She took the entrance exams and received the sad news that she had “zero knowledge” and “needed to go back to middle school”. She felt disappointed and ignorant.
Azucena left the school, and a friend referred her to Literacy Connections of Wayne County. That’s where she met Brandy Ross. Brandy was a member of the Air Force who volunteered her spare time to tutor at the center. “Brandy was tough,” Azucena said, “she gave lots of homework and took no excuses. One time I couldn’t finish my homework because my daughter was sick. She said, ‘Look, I need you to be serious with this. I want you to do your homework and next time, don’t even come if it’s not done.’ Then she walked out and left me to do the work.”
Brandy was demanding, but she wasn’t always so tough. Learning English as a second language, Azucena struggled with grammar and vocabulary. When she didn’t understand what a word meant, Brandy would look up different ways to explain the words to her. She bought her gifts to encourage her too like boxes of pencils and erasers and Dr. Seuss books.
Brandy Ross showed me a different way to see life, and she gave me hope. –Azucena Rodriguez
Another person that helped during this time was the then director of Literacy Connections, Ms. Pat. Whenever Azucena got discouraged, Ms. Pat was there to encourage her and push her to find hope when there was no hope.
Ms. Pat taught me that the only thing that can stop you is yourself. –Azucena Rodriguez
Because of Pat and Brandy’s investment, Azucena got the knowledge–in a year–that she needed to enter the High School Equivalency program at Wayne Community College. That’s where I met her.
When I first met Azucena (pronounced as-zoo-see-nuh), I stumbled over her name. “Call me Lily,” she said with a smile, “that’s what it means anyway.” It was 2013, and I was fairly new to teaching. I began to look forward to seeing Lily’s bright, enthusiastic spirit in my classroom. She inspired her peers, and she inspired me.
Nevertheless, the need to work won out for her. Lily got offered a job that took her more and more away from school until, finally, she quit school altogether. “I knew school was important,” Azucena said, “but I didn’t realize how important it was to the big picture of what I wanted to do.” As the responsibilities of her job increased, so did the gnawing guilt of knowing that she was giving up on her education. She wondered how she could ever expect her children to finish school if she didn’t do so herself. She was making good money and moving into management, but she was working 24-7. “I felt like I was married to my work; I didn’t even realize how much I was tearing down my own body and hurting myself. It was crazy to work that much without rest.”
Lily had the opportunity to meet some of the executives in the company that she worked for. It was at that point that she realized that she meant nothing more than the manual labor that got the job done for them. Education would make all the difference.
Lily had further confirmation of this idea when she discovered that her work permit would not be eligible for renewal unless she was enrolled in school. So, reluctantly or otherwise, Lily came back to us in November 2016.
Azucena was a focused and devoted student, but her resolve was different this time. This time she was staying till she finished her degree. She came to every class, led small groups, and worked over 80 hours online in supplemental work. She wasn’t the cheerful Lily from before either. She was pensive and angry at herself for ever letting go of her education in the first place. She was also annoyed by the apathy of her peers. She had seen the real world and how little it had to offer to someone without an education. Why didn’t they care more?
I thought that, in life, all you had to be was a hardworking person, but it’s not true. You need education to learn what you don’t know. Being a hard worker burns you (takes all your energy), knowledge doesn’t. Without school, you’re nobody. –Azucena Rodriguez
In May 2018, Azucena Rodriguez finally achieved her goal. She walked across the auditorium stage in her cap and gown and felt the pride of a dream being fulfilled. Her mother, husband, and three children were there to love and support her.
Azucena has some fun with grad pictures with her children (left to right): Miranda, Cruz, and Fabian
For now, Azucena is enjoying time with her family. She hopes to get a part-time job and come back to school for a degree in Industrial Systems Technology.