Special Programs Coordinator, Gateway to College, Holyoke Community College; Age 39
Julissa Colón can certainly relate to those individuals she assists through the Holyoke Community College (HCC) Gateway to College program.
Indeed, when she was 19, she left college when she had her first child. She thought the opportunity to earn a college degree had passed her by.
She was wrong, of course. She now has an associate degree from HCC and a bachelor’s degree in Latin American studies from Smith College, with a minor in history. What she needed to earn those diplomas was some encouragement and a path forward — and that’s exactly what she helps provide to others who have left traditional education.
“These are students who have already left high school or are on the verge of leaving,” Colón said. “They don’t leave because they’re not smart, they don’t leave because they’re not capable; they leave because of life. Some of them have had to go to work; some of them have stayed back so many times they feel too old to be in traditional school; some are homeless; some have had children, or they’re ill, or their parents are ill.
“What they all have in common, though, is that they don’t want to give up — they do want their high-school diploma, they do want to be successful, they do have dreams,” she went on, adding that Gateway exists to build a unique pathway to success for each student.
Colón joined Gateway a decade ago and has been instrumental in transforming the program, according to Vivian Ostrowski, the program’s director, who nominated her for this award. She said Colón is also a big reason why the program now enjoys an 83% graduation rate for those who left traditional school.
While rising in the ranks from clerk to office manager to Special Programs coordinator, she has drawn on her own experiences, and also her mother’s (she came to Holyoke from Puerto Rico) to help her understand and appreciate her students’ experiences, and also to help guide them and keep their dreams alive.
She said students often ask her to describe her role, and her answer is usually something like this: “I’m like your high-school guidance counselor and your college advisor and your auntie and a social worker — I’m all those things wrapped into one.”
She’s something else as well: a tremendous role model.