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Walla Walla Community College

Siblings Maria Alonso and Jacky Alonso-Barrientos have always placed a high value on education. Call it a family tradition.

“It was very important for both of our parents,” Maria says. “With our dad, he was always all about education.”

Jesus Alonso led by example. He earned his GED at Walla Walla Community College, as well as truck driving and nursing assistant certificates. And over the years, Maria and Jacky have seen uncles, aunts and cousins turn to WWCC for the chance to better their careers.

But neither one considered community college after high school. They thought the only path to a degree was to go straight to a four-year university, Jacky says. It wasn’t until after they graduated — and began working for WWCC — that they began to fully appreciate the benefits of community college.

Now, in their roles as a Running Start Coordinator/Advisor (Jacky) and TRIO Advisor (Maria) at WWCC, they’re both devoted to sharing what they’ve learned in order to help students like them realize how community college can put the dream of a college education within reach.

Helping students off to a Running Start

Jacky was a great high school student and always planned to go to college. But she didn’t get all the support she needed from her high school counselor, who seemed surprised college was even on her radar.

Far from discouraging Jacky, however, that less-than-ideal reaction inspired her career goal. “I always wanted to be a high school counselor,” she says. She knew firsthand the difference it could make for students to have — or not have — strong advocates. “I wanted to be that connection for students because it really was hard for me to find a connection in the high school.”

Even at the college level, some of her advisors didn’t see Jacky’s full potential. When she was pregnant with her first child in her junior year, advisors told her the chances of dropping out were high. But she persevered and graduated from Eastern Washington University with a bachelor’s degree in psychology.

Soon Jacky went to work as a bilingual paraeducator and intervention specialist at the elementary, middle and high school levels. She was even able to take some high school students on college visits. Seeing them realize, “Oh my goodness, I could go here!” was “a really good feeling,” she says.

Those experiences eventually led her to WWCC. “I wanted to continue advising but at the college level,” she says.

Now, as a Running Start Coordinator/Advisor, she helps students make the transition from high school to college successfully. “What I love most about my job is that I get to combine the two areas that I really love,” she says. “I love working with high school students. I love talking about higher ed — and being that connection for them.”

When Jacky was in high school, Running Start wasn’t presented to her as a viable option. So these days, she relishes the chance to help families understand its benefits. Running Start gives high school juniors and seniors in Washington the chance to enroll in courses at WWCC and earn college credit while they finish high school. Students can complete up to two years of college coursework tuition-free — preparing them to either enter the workforce or to transfer to a four-year college to complete their bachelor’s degree.

Jacky encourages Running Start students to really embrace the college experience. “One of the great benefits of Running Start is that they are a college student,” she says. So they can take advantage of the same events, clubs, honors programs and more that older students do. “It’s important to have a community.”

Making the leap to a four-year school

When Maria was in high school, the counseling was also discouraging, to say the least. “I remember being in my English class and the counselor coming in and saying, ‘If you don’t have a 3.9 and $20,000 in the bank, you’re not going to go to college,” Maria says. “And I remember sitting there and crying because I wasn’t going to go to college.”

Luckily, at that time, the high school had a TRIO program. TRIO specializes in helping first-in-their-family, low-income students and students with disabilities navigate college requirements and work toward earning their four-year degree. “Honestly, if it wasn’t for that, I wouldn’t have gone to college,” Maria says. “I was so thankful to find someone who believed in me.”

Together the TRIO group visited a number of campuses, including Eastern Washington University. “For me the campus visits really made a difference. Eastern felt like home,” recalls Maria, who went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice there.

After graduation, Maria worked at a juvenile justice center, but seeing young kids trapped in a cycle of truancy and crime took an emotional toll. Then a one-year position at the Walla Walla Opportunity Program changed things. “I was helping students that wanted to go to college,” Maria says. “And I remember that just made me so happy.”

The program was so impactful that when a chance to work with TRIO students at WWCC opened up, Maria jumped at the chance. “It’s an honor to share my experience and help students.”

When students come in with problems — wanting to finish their degree, but not knowing how — the TRIO team jumps into action. “Everybody here cares. … Everybody comes and helps with what their department can provide to make sure that student is going to be successful and complete their degree here,” Maria says. “Students who never thought they would come to CC and now are transferring to a four-year college — that’s the best and most rewarding part of our job.”

Students can be scared to ask for help, but Maria encourages them to keep reaching out. “They just need to ask, ask, ask, ask, and never give up because there’s help. There’s people who really really care.” 

Full circle

Jacky and Maria work every day to help students earn their degrees, especially those who, for whatever reason, think a college education is out of reach.

Meanwhile, the tradition of education in the Alonso family continues. Their youngest sister, Elizabeth, recently graduated from WWCC and transferred to Washington State University to study psychology.

And Jacky and Maria are already thinking about the next generation. “Now I have kids too, and I love that they know what college is now,” Maria says. When the time comes, they’ll have a family full of role models to help show them how to get there.

image of Jacky and Maria-Alonso
Jacky Alonso-Barrientos (left) and Maria Alonso with the WWCC mascot, Dub