By Doug Hoagland
As the early-morning sun rose higher over the Valley farm, Veronica Mendez García and other farmworkers cut grapes in the leafy vineyard. A few minutes before 8:00 a.m., García left her mother in the field. She walked to a nearby break table with her laptop and logged into a class at Fresno Pacific University.
García showed resilience as the coronavirus pandemic upended life, and Fresno Pacific moved to virtual classes in the 2020-21 academic year. “It never crossed my mind that I couldn’t handle all this,” she says.
“I just pushed that thought away and continued to focus on my studies. My mom would tell me, ‘This is what you’ve wanted since high school. You can’t throw it all away,’” she says.
In the last year, García and other FPU students successfully navigated situations that could have derailed their journeys to graduation. Whole households came down with COVID-19. Family members with other health crises required care. Children needed extra attention from their parents. Support from Fresno Pacific helped students in all programs not give up.
The stakes for persevering were huge—both in individual lives and in the life of the Valley. “Having a bachelor’s or master’s degree is going to be all the more needed as the world recovers from the pandemic and employers move forward with hiring,” says Jon Endicott, vice president for enrollment management and student services at Fresno Pacific.
Most of the fastest-growing, high-quality jobs in California require education or training beyond high school, but the Valley lags behind in having an educated workforce. The region accounts for 11% of the state’s population, but only 6% of residents have a bachelor’s degree.
FPU is playing a vital role in helping the Valley’s fast-growing Hispanic population close the gap. Almost 59% of FPU undergraduates were Hispanic in the fall 2020 semester.
Endicott says FPU students of all backgrounds reflect a determination that’s part of the region’s DNA: “There is a grit that emerges from the Valley, and you see it in our students. Once they graduate, they’re figuring out ways to make a difference in the challenges we face.”
Rising at 3:00 a.m.
García—elected student body president for 2021-22—wants to be one of those graduates. Majoring in history and social work, she is scheduled to graduate in May 2022. She then wants to earn a Master of Social Work (MSW) so she can help the Valley’s large immigrant community.
“Maybe I’ll inspire other kids from farmworker families whose parents weren’t able to finish their educations. And I want to help those parents support their children in school,” García says.
That desire helped her get up at 3:00 a.m. throughout the summer and fall of 2020 to make the hour-plus drive from her Madera home to the vineyards. García, 21, began picking grapes when she was 12.
“I love working in the fields, but I know it’s not something I want to do all my life. It’s a decent job, but it’s just not as stable as the job I want,” she says.
García’s dedication has impressed FPU faculty members. “Veronica’s leadership and resilience under tremendously challenging circumstances are celebrated among faculty in the School of Humanities, Religion & Social Sciences,” says Ron Herms, Ph.D., dean of the school. She connected from the agricultural fields to a course taught by Herms, and “she did some of the best work in my class,” he adds.
Honoring a brother
Blong Yang got the scary news last August: a test confirmed that his wife had contracted COVID-19. Other people in his Fresno household—Yang, his parents, one daughter—soon developed the fever and suffered the fatigue associated with the virus. No one needed hospitalization, but daily news reports of patients on ventilators was frightening.
So Yang—pursuing a Master of Arts in Theology at Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary—started the fall 2020 semester recovering his health and managing many responsibilities. He works full time as a software test engineer, and his wife is a full-time student seeking a career change to nursing.
One of the Yangs cooks every day for his parents. In addition, they have four children at home, and they needed supervision of online schooling and emotional support because of pandemic-imposed isolation.
Yang says he persevered in his seminary studies because of his wife’s support and because of his late brother, David, who was serving as a youth pastor in Northern California when a sniper randomly murdered him in 2011. “I made a promise I wanted to continue his legacy,” Yang says.
He also kept going during the pandemic because of his faith, which has deepened at the seminary. “I’ve come to love theology and learning about God and what a Christian community ought to look like,” he says.
Faculty provide help
Robert Rubalcaba confronted twin health-related crises early in 2020. First, his adult stepson required constant care because of worsening mental health issues. Then the coronavirus pandemic hit the United States. Rubalcaba—a Visalia resident who teaches elementary school in Dinuba—scrambled to connect to students and parents as in-person learning stopped.
Before the crises, he was three courses away from completing his Master of Arts with an Emphasis in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) Education. But Rubalcaba decided he had to take a leave of absence from FPU.
He received help in managing that process from Christopher Brownell, Ph.D., associate professor of mathematics and director of the STEM education program, and Steve Pauls, Ph.D., associate professor of chemistry. “Their support and the quality of the STEM program motivated my return,” Rubalcaba says.
Rubalcaba resumed his master’s program in the summer of 2020 after his stepson was diagnosed with a mental health disorder and began to receive the proper treatment. He now expects to receive his master’s degree this summer.
The fact that he persevered will be a good example to his students, Rubalcaba says. He will be the second person in his family to earn a degree at FPU. His mother, RoseMary Rubalcaba, attended in the 1980s and became a teacher. “I want to be able to say to her: ‘I graduated from Fresno Pacific, too.’”
Better version of herself
Griselda Mora juggled many responsibilities last fall as she completed her B.A. in Social Work through FPU’s degree completion program. She put in 15 hours a week at an internship, wrote a 30-page thesis and plowed through a challenging math class (she got an A).
All the while, she supervised online schooling for her two older children and cared for her 3-year-old. “I thought of my kids and myself when I was tired,” says Mora, a single mother. “I believe the more I learn, and the more I grow, the more I become a better version of myself and a better mother.”
A Madera resident, Mora says Fresno Pacific provided her a welcoming environment with accessible and responsive faculty members. She earned her bachelor’s degree in December 2020 and plans to get a Master of Social Work while continuing her hairstyling business.
Mora’s goal is to become a licensed clinical social worker in a mental health program. “I want to be a voice for people who aren’t heard,” she says. Her degree from Fresno Pacific is the foundation for a new career and a better future. Says Mora: “The stability for my family will be amazing.”