Barbara Lopez is originally from Paterson, New Jersey and moved to Berks County for her freshman year of high school. She was very interested in finance, so when she graduated from Reading High School in 2003, she was eager to learn more about personal finance in college. “I love helping others improve their financial health.”
The accessibility of RACC is what attracted Barbara most to the college. She needed a program that was suitable with her very busy schedule. “The fact that RACC’s campus was conveniently located and offered several classes online, I was able to juggle being a single mom, working full-time, and taking classes.”
Barbara graduated from RACC with an associate degree in accounting and then transferred to DeSales University. Recently, Barbara completed a dual degree earning a bachelor’s in finance and accounting. Plus, she finished the Certified Financial Planner Program and will be taking the exam later this year. Barbara credits RACC for giving her the foundational knowledge needed to continue her education. “Having the experience of taking so many classes online at RACC gave me the confidence to be able to complete my bachelor’s degree 100% online at DeSales.”
Barbara is very grateful for the guidance she received from her RACC faculty, especially Wendy Bonn and Dr. Maria Perez. Wendy’s support gave Barbara the extra help she needed both in and out of class. “She is one of the best instructors at RACC because of her dedication to make sure her students succeed.” Barbara personally knows Dr. Perez and spends time with her outside of RACC. She admires Dr. Perez’s work ethic and determination; and it resonated with Barbara while taking classes. “She is always encouraging me to work toward my goals and she was instrumental in my transfer to DeSales.”
Barbara currently works as the executive assistant to Berks County Commissioner Michael Rivera. She thanks her exceptional RACC experience for helping her in her current position. “RACC has helped me in understanding how important it is to build valuable relationships with others in the community and this has been essential in implementing initiatives that will benefit the residents of Berks County.”
By Jen Gittings-Dalton, KEYS Student Facilitator - There was a period in Taneah Mays’ life when life was turned upside down, and she and her daughters became homeless. She knew of no one who could help her.
“I was the last person who thought that this would ever happen to me,” she said recently in a recent meeting with KEYS program staff. “I don’t know how I made it during that time. But I was lucky. A homeless organization connected me to the County Assistance Office, who helped me apply to RACC and I entered the KEYS program. I could never have done it alone.”
She shakes her head at the memory. “My KEYS Student Facilitator, Rebecca Paull, and my amazing instructors in the Respiratory Therapy program, got me through. Now, I work at Tower Health as a Respiratory Therapist.”
On her one day off from the hospital this recently, she took time to talk with Rebecca and myself. Her smile is tired but compassionate. Her daughter, who just returned from six weeks with her uncle so that Taneah could work long hours in the current epidemic, is clearly very happy to have her mother at home with her. She pops in and out of our “Zoom” session.
Taneah is many women in one: a mother to her young daughters; a KEYS alumna; a dedicated scholar who achieved an honors academic record at RACC while overcoming her homelessness; an advocate for mental health care; and now, she works with very sick patients who need to be transferred to the ICU at Tower Health, in the very front lines of the COVID-19 epidemic.
Rebecca asked Taneah what advice she would give to someone like her earlier self. Taneah doesn’t hesitate. “The best advice I can give is – it is okay to ask for help when you need it! Vulnerability is a good thing sometimes.”
She should know. “I was a poor student in high school, and wasn’t ready for college,” she remembers. “I worked for a while in different jobs and realized that I really wanted a career in health care. When I became homeless, my caseworker put me in touch with a counselor, and I learned I was depressed and had anxiety, which were holding me back… but, as hard as it was, I don’t regret that time in my life. I learned so much from it. The coping skills I learned then, help me deal with challenges today. Everyone will need counseling at some point in their lives, and should get it.”
Safe childcare was provided by the county, and that made all the difference to Taneah. “I started to work part-time in retail, then in a medical lab, and I loved it! I knew I wanted to work in healthcare. I chose RACC and got connected to KEYS right away. I started out wanting physical therapy assistant training, but there was no way I could travel to the clinical site in Allentown. Rebecca helped me decide that Respiratory Therapy was the way to go.”
Rebecca Paull, a 15-year KEYS staff member, became her main support at RACC. “I always knew I could stop by and see Rebecca when I needed her,” Taneah says with a smile. It is immediately obvious that their bond is a strong one. “She helped me deal with any issue – when my car broke down, exploring majors, finding money for gas, and the KEYS pantry was helpful – but it was knowing she was there, that mattered.”
Rebecca laughs. “Yes, I knew you (Taneah) were out there doing what you needed to do. I didn’t worry about a missing attendance form here or there! I remember you loved doing your budgets.” Both of them smile. “I could see your dedication to your work, and now to your profession.”
Taneah also becomes enthusiastic talking about her instructors at RACC.
“I had incredible teachers, who worked with me. While I was still struggling, some teachers early on in my first semester, worked with me to attend class one day a week, and I completed all the required work. I could not have done it without them.” Taneah falls silent as she considers that time. She quickly navigated her new environment. “Of course, to succeed in the Respiratory Therapy program, dedication, participation, and attendance are important… and the instructors in my major also cared very much about all of their students.”
“I also had some amazing friends from my church who would come watch my kids early in the morning and get them off to daycare, so I could go to clinicals. I could not have done this alone. I had great people in my corner.”
She was one of those people “In the corner” for others, too. Even while she was a student, a worker, and a busy single mother, she still found time to serve her fellow students as a GED tutor and a RACC Student Ambassador.
Taneah did her clinicals at several regional hospitals, and was offered a position in her field two months before she graduated. She started working for Tower Health in 2017 and was hired full-time there in 2020. “RACC prepared me well,” she says.
We asked Taneah what her life is like now, as a member of the front-line team helping COVID-19 patients at Tower Health-Reading Hospital during this epidemic.
“Well, I love my job, but it is very hard right now. It’s scary! There are more very sick people than ever. We are physically, emotionally, and mentally exhausted. In the beginning we weren’t fully prepared for what was happening, but we are now. The best part is that we are part of a team. I love my coworkers. We rely upon each other to make it through each shift….” Her voice is emphatic, but sad.
“…But the hardest part is seeing that many coronavirus patients, because of their isolation, end up dying alone. So many have touched my heart. They are very sick – air hungry, low on oxygen. Sometimes I am one of the last people they get to see. We help them do FaceTime with their relatives, but many still end up alone.” Taneah pauses. “I was feeling impatient with one patient who wasn’t doing what I needed him to do. I took a step back and had to re-think, because I was feeling overwhelmed. This patient was fighting for his life. I vowed I would do better.”
She continues, “One result of this crisis is that, although very often Respiratory Therapy used to be sort of unrecognized by the public as a profession, now we are definitely feeling love from the community! For all healthcare workers. It helps a lot.”
We ask, what would she say to new workers in her field right now?
“You will need support to get through. Ask for help – find the right people to turn to. Jump right in.” Taneah shrugs her shoulders. “We’ll get through it. I have no other advice – these are not usual times.”
“What can we, the public, do to help?” we ask.
“Well, wash your hands, stay at home if you can. I feel so sorry for the small businesses that have taken a hit. I am very grateful to have a job. But I am concerned about opening too soon; it may make it worse.”
We ask our final question: “Taneah, remembering yourself at the beginning, what was your motivation to do so well despite all the difficulties? So many others fall away.”
She pauses, looks off-screen where her daughter is playing. “Well, I wanted this for my children. They kept me going.
“And for all the great people who were in my corner.”
“And I never give up,” Taneah Mays says.
(Reading Area Community College’s KEYS Program is a Pennsylvania state grant-funded program which helps low-income students utilize a wide array of academic, personal, and advising support as they educate themselves for a better career and fulfilling life.)
Chad DeShazo received his bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Kansas. After working at the Reading Eagle for almost 30 years as a photographer and systems specialist, he says he wanted a change. “I wanted to make a difference and make a deeper connection with people.” That is when Chad enrolled at RACC to become a nurse.
For Chad, RACC was his first choice. He was working full-time, had no medical experience and was even squeamish of blood and needles. “I wondered if I was really built for nursing, but after two semesters, I was able to put my fears behind me and run full steam through the program.” Chad was able to attend night classes and evening clinicals while obtaining his associate degree. “This was no easy task. The support I received from the entire nursing department was invaluable. They take their students under their wing and develop them into competent novice nurses.”
Chad, now a registered nurse at Tower Health Reading Hospital on the Heart Failure/Cardiac Telemetry floor, looks forward to mentoring RACC students when they do their clinicals. “During my clinicals, I was repeatedly told that RACC students are well trained and have a great work ethic. I understand that now more than ever and really enjoy working with RACC students. They are always well prepared, and it’s clear their instructors are teaching them well.”
Looking to the future, Chad has been accepted into an RN to MSN degree program. Already having a bachelor’s degree benefits Chad and puts him on track for his graduate degree in nursing. Without the solid education Chad received at RACC none of this would be possible. “RACC’s faculty trained me to become the patient-centered, critical thinking RN that I am today. I can’t say enough about the great experience I had and without hesitation I would recommend RACC to anyone wanting to enter the field.”
Luke Degenhart, a 2018 Daniel Boone High School graduate, already earned his Associate of Science degree from RACC, and is on h
Luke Degenhart, a 2018 Daniel Boone High School graduate, already earned his Associate of Science degree from RACC, and is on his way to Alvernia University to complete a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry with a minor in environment. Luke attended RACC on the Presidential Scholarship, a full-tuition scholarship for four semesters. He will attend Alvernia University with a $17,000 award in spring 2020.
Luke began taking dual enrollment courses in his junior year at Daniel Boone High School. These college-level courses are taught by approved high school faculty during the regular school day. He earned 14 credits at his high school and took online courses with RACC during his summers. He earned 26 college credits before graduating from high school.
Because of his Presidential Scholarship Award and Alvernia University’s generous transfer policy, Luke will take another four courses, post-associate degree, at RACC and one at Alvernia University this fall - all courses counting toward his bachelor’s. Already considered a junior in college, Luke has incurred very little debt by taking advantage of dual enrollment and dual admissions with RACC’s strong transfer partners.
Much of Luke’s strategy for earning his degrees has been to “get his foot in the door” early, easing the transition to taking college-level courses. He says, “Dual enrollment helped me get a step ahead of my classmate and prepared me to be a chem major.”
He also credits RACC’s supportive staff in helping him navigate his debt-free, accelerated college pathway. Jane Dietrich, senior advisor/transfer specialist worked with RACC’s good partner, Brett Krotee, undergraduate transfer coordinator, to ensure all his courses fit his program. When Luke had some life concerns affecting his academic work, he says, “Dan Glass, [senior advisor], really helped me out when I needed some help with finishing my spring classes.”
As he reflects on his college journey of dual enrollment into earning an associate degree with RACC, Luke says, “I struggled at first with the dual enrollment courses, but by the time I got to RACC, I never got a B as a grade again.”
“Dual enrollment started at Daniel Boone my sophomore year, my Dad found out about it and signed me up for courses my junior year, Trigonometry, Chemistry I, and Chemistry II.”
Now a chemistry major, Luke will tackle organic chemistry this fall. He’s academically ready, he’s ahead of his class, and he has relied on RACC to help him figure out how to earn a bachelor’s without taking on massive student debt.
Sharibel Urena was born in New York City and moved to Berks County with her parents when she was in elementary school. She loved studying chemistry, biology and French in high school, so when she graduated from Wyomissing Area High School in 2011, she was eager to continue these studies in college.
Due to her excellent high school academic performance, Sharibel received a full scholarship to RACC. She enrolled in RACC as a science transfer major. “RACC gave me the opportunity to experience college close to home before deciding which four-year institution was right for me.”
With the guidance and support of RACC faculty and staff, particularly Jane Dietrich and Jodi Corbett, Sharibel’s transfer process was smooth. “RACC’s great selection of academic programs and ease in transferring to four-year institutions was very helpful. Having knowledgeable mentors and excellent counselors at RACC allowed me to stay on track with my academic goals.” Sharibel transferred to Albright College and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry with a minor in French within four years of graduating high school.
In addition to immersing herself in trigonometry and chemistry her first year at RACC, Sharibel took advantage of the various opportunities to get involved on campus and in her community. She was a chemistry and math tutor and continued to do so at RACC even after transferring to Albright. She was a member of the International Club where she made great connections with people from around the world. There, she participated in the annual International Festival, and spent several hours volunteering to help RACC raise over $15,000 for Caitlyn’s Smiles, a local charity. Sharibel got her first taste of the performing arts when she participated in RACC Idol and won 2nd place in the competition. “I developed an even deeper passion for performing at Albright by joining the Women’s Chorale and I continue to sing with a local select chamber choir and volunteer in a community performing arts organization, Barrio Alegria.”
Sharibel also took advantage of the cross-registration program to continue her French education at Albright while taking classes at RACC. “I was placed into a 300 level French course at Albright as I attended classes at RACC and excelled at it for the next three years. Plus, I was also able to study abroad for a month in Paris.” Sharibel ultimately earned a 3.9 GPA in French, was inducted into the National French Honor Society, Pi Delta Phi, and became fluent in her third language, in addition to English and Spanish.
Thanks to the excellent education and experiences she received, Sharibel was well prepared and qualified to work professionally in the scientific field. Her first position after graduating was at a pharmaceutical laboratory as a chemist in Lancaster. The technical experience Sharibel gained there made her a perfect fit for a position much closer to home at Carpenter Technology, where she currently works as an environmental chemistry laboratory technician. “The STEM courses I took at RACC were the foundation for the higher-level science courses I took later in my academic career. The literature and speech classes and the diverse backgrounds of the people I met at RACC helped me grow from a very shy, quiet student, into one that was comfortable speaking in front of a classroom and performing on a stage.”