Last May, Janet Nickerson walked out onto the grass at Cerritos College’s Falcon Stadium to receive her diploma—a day she and hundreds of other graduates had worked toward with commitment and determination. But for Nickerson—a 47-year-old single mother of two with a full-time job—the accomplishment was even sweeter; she started college before many of her fellow graduates knew their ABCs.
Nickerson left high school at the age of 17. After taking the exit test, she abandoned the idea of college and left home. But Nickerson soon found herself back in California, working a full-time job with the idea of school far from a priority.
“I wasn’t thinking about college then…my dad said I would marry and wouldn’t have to worry about it,” she recalls.
Ten years passed. Nickerson married and had twins. But as time went by, she found herself looking back.
“I realized that I never got to walk with my class. I thought, ‘Gosh, think I missed something,’” she says. “There was also the fact that, as a kid, I had never finished anything I started. I wanted to prove to myself that I could carry something all the way through.”
Nickerson returned to school first at Long Beach City College, but transferred to Cerritos College when she moved from Long Beach to Whittier. This proved to be a turning point, specifically because of one of the counselors from the Cerritos College Distance Education office.
“When I met Yvette Juarez, she pointed me in the right direction and gave me focus. She always returned my emails and was really encouraging,” said Nickerson.
With the prodding of Juarez, Nickerson enrolled in the Weekend College program at Cerritos College, a program designed specifically for working adults.
Almost immediately after she started back to school, Nickerson faced major obstacles. She went through a divorce. Her mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, and Nickerson became one of her primary caregivers.
“I could never go full-time; it was start and stop,” she recalls.
Nickerson also had to deal with issues of confidence. She wasn’t sure if she had the academic skills necessary to succeed, and she felt different than the other students around her.
“It was the feeling of, ‘Do I belong here? Do I fit?’” she recalls. “I would tell myself, ‘Just keep going.’ And then I saw my grades—I was getting fairly good grades—and I kept going.”
With each new success, Nickerson gained confidence.
“In the beginning, I hardly said a word in class. The last two years I’ve been right out in the front and not afraid to say anything.”
Nickerson also attributes her success to the attention of professors: “I had a lot of good teachers, mainly at Cerritos College. For example, going into my statistics class, I was a bit intimidated. I told the professor that I hadn’t had algebra for quite a long time. Mr. Flores, the professor, was very encouraging. He said to me, ‘Janet, you can do this.’”
Nickerson’s children also became part of her motivation.
“I felt like if they saw me going to school when they were little, it would encourage them. It would make it a family thing. If mom and dad are lying on the couch, then why should they be working hard at school? We were able to share on a different level than if I hadn’t gone.”
Finally, after almost 20 years at community college, Nickerson graduated with a degree in liberal arts—with honors. Nickerson’s son, who is a student at UCI, and her 85-year-old father were both present to see her graduate, as well as her new husband. Her daughter, she is quick to add, could not attend but was with her “in spirit.”
“It was the biggest high in the world. I was very, very proud of myself,” she recalls. “It felt like it had been a long time.”
Next on Nickerson’s to-do list? Transfer to a four-year university and then pursue a career in psychology or business. For this single-working-mother-turned-student, finding time to further her education will never be easy—but it will always be worth it.
“It gets tough when you have kids or you lose your job,” she said. “But you just keep going.”
For more information on Weekend College at Cerritos College, please visit www.cerritos.edu/weekendcollege.