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Zackariah Wendler

#243 Zackariah Wendler, Student
(Automotive Program)

It may not be always be a direct pathway or an easy journey, but Army veteran and College of the Desert automotive student Zackariah Wendler knows that dreams can become reality. As a child, Zac dreamed of joining the military and working in Special Forces. Yet, following graduation from high school, he found himself drifting. For years he moved from place to place, working small jobs before ending up back home as a laborer. He found that he liked construction and working with his hands to accomplish a project. When the owner of the construction company for which he worked died suddenly, Zac was faced with a life decision. His thoughts returned to the military and his dream of Special Forces. He sold everything he owned, moved in with his father and began processing to join the Army. Zac settled into military life and started training to apply for Special Forces. But in 2009, while stationed in Korea, multiple injuries forced him to transition out of active military duty. This change of direction was difficult. Zac knew he needed a path back to work and civilian life. His inspiration came from within…and a little help from College of the Desert.

“I have always enjoyed fixing things and love working on cars,” says Zac. “I researched options for automotive programs, and discovered that College of the Desert offers something that other colleges don’t ...... the ability to pursue a degree along with vocational skills training.”

The COD Automotive Program is a good fit for Zac. The instructors are all highly skilled, very well connected and helpful in linking students to jobs. In addition, the College’s Veterans Resources Center has helped to pave his way, making the transition from military to civilian life easier.

“It had been 13 years since I had been in school,” he said. “I had forgotten how to be a student, but Donni Prince and the student helpers in the BIGHORN Golf Club Charities Veterans Resources Center have been a huge support.” Zac says the staff at the center communicate in a way to which he can relate. They provide emotional support, academic assistance and job resources.

Zac is continuing his military service as Chaplain’s Assistant in a Reserve Unit at March AFB. “I may have dreamed of Special Forces, but I know my service now is also essential to defending our freedoms and serving our country,” he explains.

Today, he has a new dream: Zac will be the first in his family to attend college and earn a degree. He will have a career in a field that he loves and that will provide for his family. “It makes me proud to know that my path will open the door for the next generation,” says Zac. “I have three sons and already the two older ones plan to go to college. They have the direction that I lacked coming out of high school.”

Zac’s message to everyone who has helped him along the way is this: Thank you! “With your support for the College and students like me, you truly are changing lives.”

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Maria Melecio

#242 Maria Melecio, Class of 2011, Transfer to California State University, San Bernardino Palm Desert Campus
(Associates of Arts in Business Administration)

First steps are so important in everything, especially in our education. I can’t say enough about College of the Desert and how they helped me take the first step on my path. There are so many that have contributed so much to help me pursue and succeed in my educational endeavors. I am a proud first generation American born in the United States. My parents originally emigrated from Mexico to the United States as farm workers. Like all immigrants, they were looking for opportunities and a better life. Through their hard work I was blessed with many opportunities of growing up in the Coachella Valley.

I am the oldest of four siblings. My brothers and sister consider me to be not only their older sister, but a second mother as well. At a young age, I was entrusted with taking care of my siblings because my parents work. Even now, I have to look over homework assignments, help with school projects, prepare meals, and attend school events.

When I learned English, I was given more responsibilities because my parents only speak Spanish. I was in charge of reading legal documents, translating, and helping them make the financial decisions of my family. For example, I recently helped my parents refinance their home.I learned quickly how important education is and graduated from Palm Desert High School with honors. While in high school, I worked part-time. I was fortunate to receive scholarships and grants to further my education.

I attended College of the Desert, and used the scholarship money to pay for my first year at COD, to buy my textbooks, and to pay for my classes. I worked hard and was rewarded as I was admitted to COD’s EOP (Education Opportunity Program) in my sophomore year in college. My EOP counselor, Carol Amelia Lasquade helped me select the correct courses to transfer to California State University, San Bernardino Palm Desert Campus. Also, Mrs. Lasquade helped me enroll for EOP at CSUSB Palm Desert Campus. Thanks to Carol, I completed my Associates of Arts in Business Administration in 2011 and transferred with honors.

As a result, I transferred to California State University, San Bernardino Palm Desert Campus in pursuit of a Bachelors of Arts in Finance. Thanks to Dr. Estes my professor, mentor, and advisor, (who has been like a second father) who in my junior year gave me an exception to enter his finance course that was full. That course was pivotal in my academic direction. As a minority, I knew my journey would be challenging in a pre-dominantly male oriented industry and it became more apparent in my senior year as the only female in the program. Thanks to Dr. Estes and Jill Rice (his daughter), they encouraged and gave me confidence that I was very capable to pursue a finance degree.

I graduated in June 2013, and received Cum Laude and Departmental Honors in Finance. It was a great personal accomplishment to reach this goal and I became the first one in my family to receive a college degree with distinction. Also, this goal would not have been possible without attending College of the Desert and without the help of Carol, my COD counselor, who helped me and believed that I was going to be successful. As a result, I finished my bachelor’s degree early in the Winter of 2013.

After graduating from CSUSB Palm Desert Campus, I was given the opportunity to intern at Rabobank as a financial analyst and learn about income property during the summer. Also, I volunteered at CSUSB PDC as a finance tutor and CVEP (Coachella Valley Economic Partnership) with Lanztech, which helps the Hispanic community with business start-ups.

Since I knew I wanted to become a financial advisor and help make a difference in people’s financial lives, I am now a fully licensed Investment Advisor representative and building my financial planning practice in Indian Wells. I am affiliated with Waddell & Reed, a nationally recognized financial services firm. My goal is to develop my practice by helping people attain the financial goals important in their financial lives. I also enjoy educating clients to help them in their financial decision making. I look forward to growing my practice and giving back to the community that has given me so much!

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Leslie Mouriquand

#241 Leslie Mouriquand, Transfer to ASU, Staff
(Anthropology, Adjunct faculty)

I graduated from Coachella Valley High School and enrolled at College of the Desert in 1974. I discovered anthropology while at COD and took all of the anthro courses offered. I transferred to ASU for a year, and then to Cal Poly, Pomona, where I earned a BS in Anthropology and Geography. I went on for an MA in anthropology at CSU, Fullerton. Post-graduate work in archaeology was conducted at the University of Leicester, England. My research interests include Cahuilla culture history, archaeology of the Coachella Valley, cultural resources management policy development, prehistoric ceramics, indigenous language preservation, rock art, and traditional uses of native plants. My career has spanned 30 years doing environmental and archaeology-related work both in the public sector and as a consultant. In 2012, I retired as the County Archaeologist for Riverside County. Since then, I have been teaching anthropology courses for COD and love it! I feel like I have come full circle to a place where I got my start in education and where I found my path toward a great career.

J. Zakia Johnson

#240 J. Zakia Johnson, Student
(Sociology, Anthropology, and People)

College was not a priority or conversation we regularly had in my household growing up and being the youngest of 23 siblings, it never crossed my mind to have dreams about pursuing higher education. In my family, the main focus was on getting married, raising a strong family, having a solid religious foundation and working hard. It wasn’t until I reached 6th grade career day, after the “professionals” left the class, the teacher asked the class to raise their hands and state what we wanted to be when we grew up. I can remember slinking down in my chair and not raising my hand. The question perplexed me because I had never given it a thought and hadn’t been asked, prior to that day. When I returned home that day, I thought about that question a lot. About a month or so later, the guidance counselor asked me the same question and this time, I was prepared. I proudly proclaimed that I was going to become a Pediatrician when I grew up. After some time lapsed, the guidance counselor stared at me with an amused and condescending look on her face, she calmly and matter -of -factly stated that “black girls do not become Doctors honey”. I was devastated. I decided then that the possibility of having dreams was not for me.

I grew up, graduated from high school, married, divorced, and had children. After working hard at a variety jobs, it finally hit me that I could never get ahead financially as a single parent unless I furthered my education. When I decided to make a serious change in my life for the betterment of my children and myself, I enrolled in College of the Desert. I was incredibly nervous wondering if I could really become a successful student at my age, with limited income, and several dependents. I was plagued with guilt at devoting such a large amount of time, energy, and resources, I really didn’t have, to something other than my children. However, I knew that I had to make a drastic change if I wanted to change our lives for the better.

After my first year of college, I found work at the COD Tutoring and Academic Skills Center, which I still work at. I applied for scholarships and to my humble surprise I was selected as a recipient. I am now a senior, graduating in spring with AA degrees in both, Sociology and Anthropology and plans to transfer to a four year university I have continuously maintained a GPA of 3.86, and I am member of the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society. I am still a single parent fully committed to raising my children properly. I want my children to know that anything they dare to dream is achievable with dedication, determination and perserverence. I want them to value higher education and pursue their goals. I know beyond a shadow of doubt that I would not have gotten to this part of my academic journey without the support and encouragement from College of the Desert’s extraordinary Professors, Counselors, Faculty and Staff alongside, the financial assistance I have received from donors. I am eternally grateful and truly thankful that someone took the time to read my story and believe in me enough to acknowledge my hard work which allows students like me to have peace of mind and freedom to dare to dream.

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Bert Bitanga

#239 Bert Bitanga, Transfer to Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, Staff
(Tenured fulltime faculty)

The starting point of my career that has come full circle began on the College of the Desert campus in 1985. The experience of being a student here was a pivotal point in my life. I enrolled in many interesting courses where I met caring and inspirational faculty who sparked my interest in someday becoming a teacher.

Upon transferring from COD, I pursued a major in Architecture at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo and graduated in 1992. I immediately returned to the Coachella Valley and secured a position at a local architectural firm. After a decade of practicing architecture, I was given the opportunity to teach a drafting course at COD as an adjunct faculty. Eventually, the full time position became available and I decided, just as an exercise in the interview process, to apply. I was surprised yet thrilled to receive the telephone call from the president of the college to offer me the position. I had returned to the College of the Desert with the opportunity to make an impact on the lives of students. Little did I know that I would be the one who would be greater impacted.

After thirteen years as a tenured faculty member, I feel blessed to be a part of the COD family where the passion for student learning and student success is realized everyday. The experience of sharing my knowledge is the most rewarding and joyful feeling and I believe that I’ve learned just as much from the students as they have learned from me.

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