Earlier this month, VAL teams from around the state enjoyed our first all-staff in-person gathering since before the pandemic. During this meeting, we enjoyed a presentation from VAL student Chelsea who wrote and shared the following, which she has graciously agreed to share here as well. Please enjoy reading about Chelsea’s educational journey!
Good morning. I am honored to be here today to share my story, my experience, and most of all what VAL has done for me outside of my education.
When I was 17 years old, I made the choice to drop out of high school. I was working in an office at the time and had a second job at my aunt’s deli on the weekends. School was not my priority. I thought I knew it all. Aside from that, I was the youngest of four kids and my parents were just tired by the time I got to high school and never pushed the importance of an education on me very hard. I am not sure I would have received it well even if they had. I didn’t need to finish high school. I was already way behind on credits and had no chance of graduating with my class.
High school was very different when I was there. There was one way to learn, and if you learned differently, you got left behind. In my case, I was told by teacher after teacher that I wasn’t applying myself. This was not the case. I was trying. I just did not grasp the concepts in the same way my peers did. I did well in the classes that truly interested me or if I was lucky enough to have a teacher who took the time to see that I was struggling and really wanted to help. Unfortunately, those teachers were few and far between in the 90’s. At the time, that alone made the choice to leave my education behind easy. I tried going back to school in the fall of 2002, the fall after my class graduated. It took me 2 weeks to realize that this was not for me, so I left yet again and just went to work full-time. I came to VAL twice in my early 20’s but never got beyond the initial testing and never followed the process through.
I have been at my current job for 16 years, it has never really been something I loved doing.
One day a switch flipped. I had a terrible morning at work. The customers were awful to me all morning and I knew at that moment it was the time to start making some changes. Without any further hesitation, I googled the phone number for VAL and called to see what I needed to do to get my GED. I scheduled an appointment to go discuss the process and that Friday I was there on my lunch break. I wanted a quick fix so I could feel confident applying for a new job, but the GED turned out to not be part of my journey after all. By the time I walked out, it was decided that I would do the High School Completion Program instead. I remember everything about that day so vividly, looking back now I realize it is because that was the first day of the rest of my life.
“Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you are right.” That quote was hanging on the wall in my learning center and as I waited for the Regional Director to come back with some forms to fill out, I sat and mulled that quote over in my mind. That quote turned out to be the answer to everything I had been lacking all of these years. I was living my life telling myself “I can’t.” I had excuse after excuse as to why I couldn’t get an education. I was too old, I didn’t have time. All of my excuses were quickly pushed aside and I was now going to live my life fueled with turning all of my “I can’t”s into “I can”s.
I remember how difficult it was to fill out a form asking about my goals and interests. At the time I had no idea what any of those were. I really struggled filling it out. Fast forward a year and a half and I would need multiple pages to tell you all of my dreams, goals, and newfound interests. I don’t even know that version of myself anymore, that sad girl who came to the center that day. Although she is part of my story, that version of me no longer exists.
In my time at VAL, I utilized the Online Learning Center. Working full time, and having a home and family to keep up with, made it difficult at times to make it to the center as often as I would have liked. The first class I took was Personal Finance. My knowledge of money really went as far as being really good at spending too much of it. I obviously knew how to pay bills, and about credit cards, but we discussed different types of saving accounts and retirement funds that I knew nothing about. So thanks to Elaine I have a better understanding of that and perhaps I will be able to retire before noon the day of my funeral.
But, it was a class I took starting in January that was the real turning point for me. I saw there was going to be an Epidemiology class starting. I signed up. A couple of days before class began I got a survey from the teacher asking about who I was as a learner and just asking questions to get to know me in general. I thought it was great that she cared enough to ask for my personal strengths and weaknesses. That first night of class, Krissy Shelvey’s enthusiasm got me excited for what was ahead. I really looked forward to logging into class twice a week. I went on to take 3 more classes with Krissy. It was clear to me from that first night of class that she genuinely cared about her students and the work she does. She made everyone feel like someone. Every class started with asking how each student’s day was, and ended with “go and have a great night, you are all amazing”. I had one teacher up until that point like Krissy and that was my middle school English teacher whom I still have a relationship with today. Looking back I realize how different my traditional high school experience would have been if all of the teachers had hearts like Krissy’s.
It is the relationships I have formed in my time here that have made this experience so special. I am grateful Jackie stepped into the advising role when she did. She has become one of my biggest cheerleaders and that has made a world of difference in my life. In conversation with Jackie I have learned it is perfectly okay to have things in my past I may not be proud of but those moments do not have to define me.
For some students here, their goal is to make more money or get a better job. Though I want those things for myself and that was the main reason I started, my journey here has turned into a quest for personal growth, overcoming fears (which is what has me standing here right now, facing my fear of public speaking), and reinventing myself. I want to share my story and help the next ones in line. We all have a story, a past that maybe we aren’t proud to share, I want to use my own struggles to help others. Although I don’t have my next steps all perfectly planned out just yet, I am closer than I have ever been. I have even discussed how to maybe circle back to where my life started again and think about becoming an advisor myself.
My desire isn’t to go out and get rich. Although that would be nice, I have one main goal in my sights and that is to do something that brings me joy and allows me to go to sleep each night knowing I made some sort of a difference in someone’s life.
Inadequate, useless, lost, sad, self-doubting, uninspired, failure. These are just a few words I can think of to describe how I thought of myself back in January of 2022 when my journey at VAL began. At the time I had no idea just how much self-worth was wrapped up in a simple high school diploma.
Fast forward to today, confident, inspired, determined, happy, productive, creative, grateful; these are the words I think of when I look at myself these days.
My husband told me just a couple of weeks ago, as I celebrated 6 months of sobriety, 6 months free from my unhealthy relationship with alcohol, that he truly doesn’t think I would have ever stepped back to see the potential in myself and start living a more meaningful life if I hadn’t made that call that day.
Having the support, guidance and just simply having people really believe in me has made all of the difference for me. I am beyond grateful to stand in front of all of you today to personally thank you for the work you do. It truly changes lives. Thank you for being such an important part of my story.