Jennifer with group in China and graduating

From tragedy to tears of joy

A little self-belief can go a long way. At least that’s the way Jennifer Zamora sees it.

“One of our greatest battles is within our own minds. Try to change the way you think about yourself, you’re wrong if you think you’re not good enough.”

Zamora, a recent Muscatine Community College graduate, knows a thing or two about getting back up when life knocks you down and facing barriers head-on, whether mental, physical, emotional or financial.

Her determination to make the most of her life started as a young girl growing up in California. Her family relocated to Iowa for work when she was 11-years-old.

“I was always different. I knew there were two paths, either be in trouble, because where I come from there are gangs and at the age of 12 they start recruiting you, or get an education and make it out of there,” Zamora said.

Zamora chose the latter, proudly being the first in her family to graduate from high school. Not knowing what she wanted to do next, she enrolled in classes at MCC after a friend recommended the college. But before she could even celebrate her first day of college classes, her life took a dramatic turn.

“The summer that I enrolled I lost my brother to suicide and my mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer just months later,” Zamora said.

As her family faced tremendous heartache and loss, Zamora dropped out of college to help raise her younger brother and nephew.

“After I lost my brother and mom, I just kind of stopped trying,” she said. “Me and my mom were very close, I felt like my hopes and dreams had kind of left with her.”

Over the next several years, she worked a couple of full-time jobs to help support her family, eventually landing a position in a factory. It was a job, but not what she really wanted to do. However, she ended up being let go, a situation she soon realized was a stroke of good luck.

“I remember I walked into the unemployment office and they had a huge poster there for IowaWORKS, it said ‘training for a better future.’”

The poster caught her attention and she asked for more information. She didn’t know it then, but it was the start of a new beginning. Through IowaWORKS, she was offered the opportunity to take classes at MCC and earn a certificate that would help her secure a new job. IowaWORKS provides services related to the Workforce Innovation Opportunity Act, which is coordinated by Eastern Iowa Community Colleges.

“They introduced me to Sabrina Shoemaker, who works for IowaWORKS at the MCC Campus,” Zamora said.

“Speaking to Sabrina, she really believed in me and at the moment I really didn’t believe in myself. Once I started classes and got to know my teachers, I realized everybody was there to help me. I felt like I had a lot of support from the advisors to Sabrina, just the whole staff. I realized I could continue and get my Associate’s Degree. You just have to apply yourself.”

She not only applied herself in class, but also took a work study job at the McAvoy Center, joined student senate and started a League of United Latin American Citizens Chapter, also known LULAC, on campus.

And this spring, nearly eight years after she first enrolled in classes, she proudly walked across the stage to receive her Associate in Liberal Arts Degree.

“Honestly, after I lost my brother and my mom, it was difficult, but I wanted to be a role model for my younger brother and nephew. I was the first one in my family to graduate from high school and the first one to graduate from college. I just wanted to break that cycle in my family,” Zamora said.

Now, Zamora is not only working to break the cycle in her own family, her brother just started his first year at MCC, but she is also inspiring students at Muscatine High School as the high school’s Americorps College Access Coach, a job she started during her final year at MCC.

“Although I did not think of myself as a people person, I started working for Americorps helping seniors with the college transition. Through that I realized my talent. I am able to talk to people and can make a difference.”

This self-discovery inspired her to transfer to the University of Iowa and work toward a Bachelor’s Degree in social work with a minor in political science.

“I know that there are people like me who are struggling and think they don’t have anything to offer the world, but they do,” she said.

Zamora took her own advice to heart quite literally this summer, traveling halfway across the world. This July, she was one of eleven students chosen to take part in the Summer 2018 Study in China Program on behalf of the Wanxiang America Corporation and the City of Muscatine. As part of the program, students from the Muscatine Community School District and MCC spent a month in China studying Chinese language, culture and clean energy science at the Wanxiang Polytechnic, a vocational and technical college.

From climbing the Great Wall of China to appreciating the beautiful architecture of the Forbidden City’s grand imperial palace, Zamora said she tried her best to soak in every minute of this new adventure. In between tears mixed with joy and a little bit of disbelief, Zamora described her experience.

“It was like a dream come true, I never pictured myself on the other side of the world…looking at different stars, getting a different view of the moon, it was just amazing,” Zamora said.

 

She said her story is proof that anything is possible if you just believe.

“You won’t ever know if you can do something until you try.”

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