This spring, Paola Arias-Batista became one of the first Passaic County Community College (PCCC) students to receive the New Jersey Community College Opportunity Grant (CCOG), a pilot program that enabled qualifying students to attend classes tuition free.
“I was so happy to receive this,” said Arias-Batista, who struggled to pay for her own education by working full time while attending PCCC full time. “Without this grant, I wouldn’t have been able to finish my last semester at PCCC,” she explained. “I was able to focus on my studies more.”
The CCOG helped thousands of students attending New Jersey’s 19 county colleges during the 2018–2019 academic year. The grant program has been extended and expanded for 2019–2020.
For Arias-Batista, the CCOG meant she was able to complete her semester tuition free, and she received an associate degree in human services in the 47th commencement in May, a triumph for the young woman who came to the U.S. only five years ago from the Dominican Republic (DR).
“I didn’t speak any English when I came,” Arias-Batista said. She had been attending university classes in the DR, but left that behind when her father decided to move the family to the U.S. “I couldn’t finish my degree,” she explained.
To help her family, Arias-Batista worked a full-time factory job making plastic bags. “It was not a good environment,” she said. “It was kind of dirty and uncomfortable, but I didn’t know enough English to get a better job.” In addition, she held down a part-time position in a dollar store.
Determined to improve her situation, she enrolled in PCCC’s English-as-a-Second Language classes.
Not long after, with stronger English skills, she landed a new job with a company that makes semi-conductor products.
“The difference in jobs is huge,” said Arias-Batista, who will celebrate her third anniversary with the company in October. “The environment here is clean and pleasant. It’s more like working in an office.”
“I’m thankful for my ESL classes,” she said. “I had to know enough English to complete the three weeks for training for my new job. I would not have been able to do that without ESL.”
With her associate degree in hand, Arias-Batista plans to transfer into a bachelor’s degree program, most likely at Rutgers University, and prepare for a career as a social worker.
She wants to focus on helping people with drug and alcohol addiction, an about face for her. She explained that in the DR, she lived in an area where drug and alcohol abuse was common.
“The attitude in the DR is not sympathetic toward addicts,” she explained. “I didn’t accept them either.” However, living in the U.S. changed Paola’s perspective. “I realized that I wanted to help them,” she said.
That desire prompted her to major in human services at PCCC. While serving an internship at a Paramus agency, Arias-Batista observed the theories she had learned in the classroom put into practice. “I developed empathy for addicts and understand them better,” she said.
She is the first in her family to earn a degree from an American college. A member of the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society, she is proud of her accomplishment and grateful to PCCC.
Though more education is in her future, Arias-Batista plans to take some time off from school first. “I’ve been working full time and attending school full time,” she said. “I’m going to rest for a while.”
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