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260 Stories And Counting.

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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Jack Steptoe

#238 Jack Steptoe
(Head Football Coach)

I grew up in South Central Los Angeles. During high school I participated in track and played basketball and football. In the mid-70s I attended Los Angeles Valley College (a community college). In 1974 I played wide receiver for them. I had no visions of grandeur about being a star college player or playing in the NFL. I wanted an education and just hoped that my hard work on the field and my diligence in the classroom would eventually lead to a scholarship.

When we defeated Fresno City College I was awarded the game’s Most Valuable Player and was also named to the All Conference Team after receiving 38 passes and scoring nine touchdowns that year. That season unlocked a multitude of opportunities for me.

After the 1975 season, I accepted a scholarship to play at the University of Utah. I was Rookie of the Year and made All Conference in 1976 and 1977 as a receiver and punt returner.

My career in the NFL as a receiver began in 1978 when I was drafted by the Chicago Bears. I also played for the San Francisco 49ers, the Washington Redskins, the Philadelphia Eagles, and lastly with the San Diego Chargers in 1980. In addition, I also played for the Canadian League and the USFL expansion team before retiring in 1984.

My parents moved here to the Desert in 1983. In 1984 I began my coaching career as assistant football coach at College of the Desert when John Marmon was the head coach. I have coached in the desert for more than 25 years for both COD and Palm Desert High School, playing a role on the Palm Desert High 2005 team that finished


In addition, I earned an AA degree in Management and Supervision at College of the Desert in 2002.

I returned to COD in 2006 as the Assistant Football Coach. In 2014 I became COD’s Head Football Coach. Just recently I had the honor of being inducted into the California Community Colleges Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame.

I work to develop my players both athletically and academically, so as to prepare these young men to transfer on to four-year colleges. I tell them that it is what they have between their two ears; that knowledge is the most important thing. I also try to build their character and integrity and that it is important how you represent yourself and to try to be as diplomatic as possible. I want these kids to know that they can have dreams if they set goals and work hard to achieve them. I hope they can see the value of playing junior college football and how it can unlock future opportunities for them, just as it did for me.

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#237 Brianna Uhlhorn , Class of 2000, 2006
(Associate Degree Liberal Arts Early Childhood Education and Psychology Adjunct Instructor )

I grew up here in the Coachella Valley so I can easily relate to how College of the Desert has impacted people in so many different ways. In fact, I have memories as a young child of helping run my parents snow cone business at the COD Alumni Street Fair. Flash forward to a High School career fair on campus where I spoke with a representative from the Regional Occupational Program (ROP) for Early Childhood Education (ECE) and my ECE career begins. College of the Desert was a natural choice after High School.

I received a Teacher Certificate in ECE and began working in the field. Many twists, turns and detours later I returned to College of the Desert as an adult student. This time, I continued my education to the Master’s Level. My path has come full circle, today I teach the students who are in the same program that I once completed. I am honored to say that I once sat where they have and I can speak from the heart when I tell students they can finish their education and make an impact. I am proud to be the first in my family to graduate from college and I hope I can inspire my students to go above and beyond. Thank you COD!

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Phillip Carillo

#236 Phillip Carillo
(Former student)

I was born in Indio and grew up in La Quinta and then moved to Coachella at age 22. I never put much thought into college; but, I knew I had to go on to college as my father said I would get lazy if I didn’t. So, I chose College of the Desert (COD) because it was local. I enrolled in the fall of 2008, just after graduating from high school. At the time I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, so I just took general education courses. I studied Art when I first enrolled and then moved to Business, Liberal Arts and Journalism. I kind of wanted to do it all.

Taking classes at COD opened doors to many job opportunities. Being able to put College of the Desert on my résumé, enabled me to get a job working with Marshalls, Super Target, Hort Tech Landscape, Desert Grand Champions, and the Chop House. COD gave me the knowledge, and I was able to use everything I learned, to get a better job and advance my career. After working in high school at a skate shop for $6.75/hr. in 2006 I was then able to move to retail and landscaping and finally to running and managing my own business/website. Currently I am involved in media marketing and am the C.E.O. and Executive Producer of CV Productions, a company that I started. I would love to pursue a career in video/photo editing and media marketing.

COD gave me the tools, education, and confidence to succeed in life, helping me to build my future.I believe that with a higher education you are given more opportunities in the field of study in which you would like to have a career. It also builds your confidence to overcome future obstacles.

My family has everything to do with where I am today. Without my parents I don’t think I would be the person I am today. They have helped and pushed me so much and I am thankful to still have them in my life.

I also appreciate all of the help I received from my instructors. The knowledge I gained has helped me to achieve the position I am holding today. I don’t think I’d be where I am today without the education I received at COD.

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