Student Stories

Stories from Past DESP Students

Sara’s Story

Sara Sommers

If someone asked me in my senior year of high school where I was going to college, I would look at them with fake enthusiasm and say, “West Valley College.” Throughout my time in school, I’ve been considered a slow learner especially when it came to math and writing, and I also had to retake the CAHSEE three times in high school. With math, I had to be placed in a special education math class in middle and high school and be tutored twice a week at a nearby middle school to understand the concepts that the teacher was teaching in the class as I couldn’t do my math homework alone.

Writing in English class was worse. I was in a general education class, and everyone knew that I couldn’t write, but no one knew how to help me. My English teacher in sophomore year handed me back the first essay; she told me that I sounded “choppy” while my counselor told me that I wrote like a third-grader every time I saw him. As a result, I didn’t want to ask for help and felt extremely low confidence in myself. My contemporary literature teacher realized I couldn’t write within the first week of school, and that year taught me the basics of writing an essay during my senior year of high school. It was a magical feeling when I got into West Valley College and enrolled in the DESP, so I could succeed in my classes.

My counselor was spectacular as she picked out the right classes and the right teachers that would be the right fit for me. That first semester, I took four classes which included English, an English support class, a film class, a math lab, and pre-Algebra. Those were the right classes for me especially when it came to English and math.

My math lab professor at West Valley would verbally and visually tell me how to do a problem on the whiteboard, and the big bad problem that once turned into a math monster before my eyes if I didn’t get it was being solved in a way that I could understand. As a result, I looked forward to math lab because the professor there was fun and caring and wanted me to learn which is the first time I actually had math-related teacher care about me doing well in his or her class. When it was time for pre-Algebra, I walked into the class feeling extremely excited and ready to learn what would be on the whiteboard. My pre-Algebra professor, like my math lab professor, was funny and caring and wanted me to succeed in her class, and I realized that I knew what she was teaching me, too.

The big bad math monster that would taunt me when I didn’t understand the problem was gone, and I felt like I was a math prodigy for the first time in my life. I received a 98/100 on my first exam which made me feel excited and confident in myself. Suddenly, I wasn’t this dumb stupid girl in math class, and I could actually learn. In my English support class, I had to relearn everything including parts of speech, thesis writing, and punctuation rules. For the professor to get a feel for my writing, she asked my class to write an essay, and I knew exactly what I wanted to write about. It was about how high school students shouldn’t read depressing books that make them unhappy. Within a few weeks, my essay skills had improved, and even though I had to take another English support class the next semester, I received A’s and B’s on my essays in my college English class which made me feel I was a good writer.

I also gained self-confidence and learned how to talk to teachers, and learned how to advocate for myself. When the first semester ended, I landed a report card with all A’s which made my heart swell up in extreme delight. This was the first time in my life I received all A’s on my report card. I later graduated from West Valley in good standing and transferred to Humboldt State University where I worked closely with my professors, earned a B.A. in Sociology, got into the International Sociology Honors Society, and left with a 3.8 term GPA.

Overall, what I would like to say to current and future DESP students is that I will always have math and writing learning challenges, but I met amazing people who were willing to help me along the way, and I don’t see it as a weakness but as a source of strength. Back when I was a senior in high school, I felt a hidden shame that I was going straight to a community college because I was way slower than my peers. However, now I am proud to say I am a West Valley College graduate and a huge advocate for community college as I view it as a hidden gem. What I advise all current and future DESP students is to write their own stories and chase their dreams.

This is Mary Black

Mary Black

All my life, I have been considered slow. Slow at reading, slow at processing, slow at learning in general. If you had asked me in high school how I felt about being slow, I would've probably told you it was the worst thing in the world. Teachers asking other students to help you, peers’ knowing looks, and homework that was impossible to complete were all aspects of my school life I could barely cope with. Yet it would be the understanding of these aspects that would hold the key to my passion and the career I would choose.

I was nine years old before I learned to read. Although I was homeschooled, the more intimate learning environment was not enough to keep me on track academically. By the time I was a senior in highschool, I was so behind in math that if I wanted to pursue higher education, I would have to start college in pre-algebra. The process of always playing catch up had really taken a toll on my confidence at this point, and I figured even if I was able to do college, I would only receive C’s. Still, something inside of myself was telling me, begging me, to try.

I started West Valley Community College by getting tested for a learning disability. As expected, I have one, and was promptly provided with the necessary accommodations to give me equal opportunity for success. I only started with a few classes, but math was one of them. Before the actual math class, I would attend a math lab provided by the Disability and Educational Support Program (DESP) to get a little more familiar with the material, do homework, and receive tutoring for problems I struggled with. As I went through the semester, I was pleasantly surprised by the fact that I was understanding the material. Not only was I understanding it, but I was doing really well in the class. So well, that I began to assist my peers when they had questions. A year into my college education, my lab teacher asked if I would consider taking the pre-algebra tutoring position for her class. Although I was elated that she had that much confidence in my abilities, the thought of assisting college students on my own was quite daunting. What if I was slower at teaching than they were at learning? What if there was a problem I couldn’t solve? Every scenario buzzed around my head until I had almost convinced myself the position wasn’t for me. But again, that voice inside, though quite terrified, told me I needed to try.

I started tutoring the next semester and quickly came to a conclusion on how I felt about it; I absolutely loved it. The best part of my job was that I could use my disability to my advantage. I understood my students’ struggles with certain concepts because I too had found them difficult to learn. When someone couldn’t understand a problem the way it was written, I would work with their strengths to find a way they could comprehend the material. Every evening after I had tutored, my mind would​ spin​ with ideas of how I could make a concept more teachable. If it was fractions, maybe I could draw pictures. ​If it was the number line, maybe I could physically walk across the floor to illustrate positive and negative number places. I ​was also always very transparent about my own learning challenges, and would playfully tease the students about being out of a job if no one was brave enough to ask questions. I wanted them to be as comfortable as possible; to understand that I was never going to tell them they weren’t good enough or couldn’t do it. Once I had been tutoring for a year, the DESP asked if I would like to work as an office assistant to the accommodations specialist. At this point, my confidence had grown enough that I readily accepted the position. I enjoyed this job as well, and gained invaluable knowledge about what goes on behind the scenes within a student disability department. All of this experience began to make me think about what I wanted to do for my career, and one job in particular began to stick out in my mind; teaching.

I’ve been specifically pursuing a teaching career in special education for two years now. When I transferred from community college, I left with a 4.0 grade point average and have continued striving for and achieving academic excellence while I’ve been at California State University Monterey Bay. I have utilised my accommodations when needed, and have always communicated well with my teachers. I even applied for and got a job on campus similar to the one I had at my community college. I am still a slow learner, I always will be, but that is not where I stop when I define myself anymore. I am a successful student with personal experience in the field of special education that will be invaluable for my career. I am passionate about my future students, and I look forward to assisting them with being successful in my class. Most importantly though, I am accepting of myself. I will make a great special education teacher, not because of who I’ve always wished I could be, but because of who I am.

Last Updated 8/21/23