Nine years ago, Cinthia Zelaya immigrated to the U.S. from Honduras with the goal to continue her education in her newly adopted country.
Unable to speak English and unfamiliar with the American education system, Zelaya would have to start from square one.
“I felt frustrated,” recalled Zelaya, who already had a college degree from a Honduran university. “But I realized something: Nobody is going to push you if you don’t push yourself.”
Since enrolling at College of the Canyons in 2017, Zelaya earned her general education degree, learned English through the college’s noncredit program, earned five certificates, and transitioned to the college’s credit program.
“You have to understand the importance of taking small steps. Those small steps will make the difference,” said Zelaya.
On Friday, those small steps will lead Zelaya across the COC graduation stage, where she will receive her associate degree in human resources management.
“We are so proud of Cinthia’s accomplishments,” said Lisa Pavik, director of noncredit enrollment services at the college. “Her success serves as testament to the transformative power the noncredit program can have on people’s lives. She knew her own worth, was persistent and drew on the support of her family to achieve her educational goals.”
While the noncredit program prepared her for the transition, the process was still daunting for the non-native English speaker.
After attending her first credit class — a business course taught by COC instructor Yasser Issa — Zelaya cried afterward.
“I didn’t understand anything,” said Zelaya. “The teacher talked really fast, and I got frustrated. In ESL classes, the teacher speaks slowly so that the student can understand.”
Determined to finish what she started, Zelaya spoke with Issa and explained her unique situation.
“He gave me the opportunity to earn extra credit and that allowed me to help me continue, to not simply throw in the towel,” said Zelaya. “I finished my class with an A.”
Issa says it is students like Zelaya who make the instruction journey so rewarding and inspiring.
“I remember students being in awe of her determination, humility, and willingness to sacrifice her own time and resources to help others,” said Issa. “She always smiled and shared her own ability to overcome struggles and obstacles to help her peers overcome theirs.”
When Christina Chung, a COC business instructor, took a special interest in Zelaya, she helped her realize that a career in human resources would best align with her interests and skills.
“They were the pillars of my career,” said Zelaya of Issa and Chung. “I will never forget them because they opened the door to a completely different world where I never thought I’d be capable of entering.”
After completing the Supervisor’s Roadmap and Customer Relations certificate programs at COC in 2021, Zelaya was hired as a supervisor assistant at an aerospace and defense company in Castaic.
Chung says she had no doubt that Zelaya would reach her goal. “She is a true inspiration to everyone,” said Chung. “She always had a positive attitude and was open to learning. She would take what she learned in the classroom and apply it to her workplace and share her progress. I am so proud of Cinthia.”
While Zelaya will be transferring to Cal State Northridge in the fall to study business, she said she will always be grateful for getting her start at COC.
“I would like to simply say thank you to everyone who is part of the college,” said Zelaya. “You might look at your job as a normal job, you put in eight hours, and you go home. But the impact you have in the people who come from completely different countries, and find a reason and a way to study in this country, it is something priceless. It will forever leave a mark.”