A Long Walk to a FAST Track Pre-College GED Program

Jun 21, 2024 | Blog, Indigenous Adult Education, Our Programs

Sara Ann Gutierrez, a student at Tohono O’odham Community College (TOCC) on the Tohono O’odham Reservation in Arizona, had a long tedious journey. She attended six different high schools and charter schools, but thanks to the American Indian College Fund and TOCC, just completed her GED in April 2024.

Sara comes from the Baboquivari District and resides in the San Xavier community southwest of Tucson. She says her mother, Keyna Gutierrez (Tohono O’odham) and father, Rueben Gutierrez (Cocopah from Yuma, Arizona) were instrumental to her success.

Sara shares her journey in her own words:

I went to schools in Tucson, Arizona; Albuquerque, New Mexico; and Yuma, Arizona. By the time I was in my last school (EOC in Yuma, AZ) I was a super senior with junior credits. I was so far behind. I was 17 and living with my dad at the time on the North Cocopah Reservation. I would get on the first city bus in the morning and get dropped off as close to the school as possible, and no matter how on time I was or how fast I would walk, I was always a few minutes late to my first class, which was geometry. I told the principal my dad left for work at 5 a.m. so the city bus was my only option. He understood and said as long as I kept my grades up, it wouldn’t be an issue.

The way home after school was a completely different scenario. My school was 4.6 miles away from my house. There was a bus stop right outside the school that took me to the Main Street bus station, which took me clear across town to a Walmart, which then had a bus that would take me back to the North Cocopah Reservation. The other option I had to get home was to walk a main road lined with a brick wall on each side, with very little shade and neighborhoods on each side of me producing more heat. Yuma is already a very hot city with average summer temperatures at 102, and the record high is 120 degrees! That walk was three blocks to a gas station where I would have to wait for a bus to pick me up and take me directly to the reservation.

Instead of completing high school, I began working. I told myself that one day I would get my GED. At 20 years old, I had my first born; her name is VariLeana. In 2017, I started going to the San Xavier Education Center for a GED session that was provided by the One Stop Program. I was going religiously, but then the session ended, and I continued to work. I was to be notified when another session started up again, but to be honest, I had put finishing school at the back of my to do list. Then COVID hit – a perfect time to get my life together, I thought! I always laugh looking back at that and, of course, no GED programs were open or available, so I continued on without school and still told myself I would get my GED one day.

In 2021, I was pregnant with my second child, my son Vinson. I worked in housekeeping at a hotel until I was eight months pregnant. It was strenuous work, pregnant or not. I saved everything I made in anticipation of my son’s birth. When my son turned one, I decided to start selling beadwork. My grandma from my Cocopah side of the family taught me how to bead when I was eight years old. I started selling necklaces and then earrings. The necklaces took six hours to make if I worked nonstop. I sold them for $60 dollars. The earrings took eight hours to make; I sold them for $100 dollars. I was able to make a lot of sales and my son’s dad would take the kids so I could work on one piece per day. The money I made went to things we needed such as diapers, wipes, toiletries, and on some occasions paid for a family outing.

In the summer of 2023, I did a lot of growing up. I cut off a lot of destructive habits and toxic people and decided to call the San Xavier Education Center one more time to ask if any GED programs were available. Sure enough, they said they were having an orientation in August and asked if I could be at the education building at six in the morning for a trip scheduled to the TOCC campus for the Pre-College GED Program, which was hosting its first annual GED Adult Education conference. I wasn’t sure what to expect. All I knew was after all those long hot walks and bus rides in Yuma, I was getting my GED for sure this time.

Sara on graduation day

Sara on graduation day.

At the orientation, I was able to complete my application for the GED Fast Track Program with TOCC. I was able to meet my math tutor, Mrs. Linda Gates, who I worked with three days out of the week for the next seven months. The college and Linda did an amazing job helping me prepare for the math portion of my GED. Linda and I went over my weak points all the way to the morning of my scheduled math test and I passed!

It took me seven months to complete all of the sections of the GED exam: reading/language arts, science, social studies, math, and the Arizona civics test.

TOCC’s Pre-College GED program gave me the support I needed to complete my GED. From the minute I attended the orientation, I felt a sense of home. Hearing other tribal members share their stories and struggles while trying to get their GED and their words of encouragement about how we, too, could get our GEDs at any age inspired me. The orientation was so thoughtfully organized, and it made me proud to be a part of it.

I hid my insecurity about not having a high school diploma or a GED for a long time. I did not want to attempt to apply for certain jobs or even discuss the subject. Now I can say I finally did it at 28 years old!

The silver lining will always be that my daughter saw how important it was for me to finish. I cried because of the stress of school, class, homework, money, cooking, cleaning, having my son home with me while on a Zoom meeting with Linda. At times I had to pause the Zoom tutoring session to change my son’s diaper or put him to sleep. It was all worth it because at the end of everything, I got to have the memory of a lifetime, one that I never thought I would get to see, to finally wear a cap and gown for my very own graduation with my mother watching me walk across the stage.

After I completed my GED, I was hired by the college as the district monitor for a computer literacy class at the San Xavier Education Center. The class is designed to teach tribal community members how to use a computer and each person receives a certificate at the end of the program. I also plan to start a program in medical billing and coding with the support of the Tohono O’odham Nation’s One-Stop Program. I am excited about this and looking forward to continuing my education now that I have completed my GED.

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