It’s challenging and crazy, but she relishes every moment in her community college experience.
Erin Atienza, 33, never believed she was college bound. No one in her family had attended college beyond vocational or technical college, and her plans were more centered on instant gratification than long-term success.
Atienza took the entrance exam, collected old educational documents and saved money for six months before she began taking classes at Pierce College Puyallup in winter 2014.
She has never felt so close to doing what she wants to with her life. She realizes that earning her associate degree is an important step and will do whatever is necessary to graduate.
“I’m going to (graduate),” Atienza said. “There’s no question about it… I’m just ready for it. There’s not a thought in my mind or anything that would come up that would make it so I couldn’t finish. If something did come up that presented a threat to keeping me from finishing school, I would remove it.”
Atienza began taking classes at Pierce while working, but she quickly realized focusing on her studies was a higher priority and required her full attention.
“There’s sometimes where I’m still overwhelmed, and it’s just school,” Atienza said. “It’s a full-time job, especially if you want to get good grades and do well. I don’t just want to skim by. I really want to get the most I can out of it. “
For the past 12 years, Atienza worked as a bartender. Though she respects her friends that have chosen to continue bartending, she realized it wasn’t a lifestyle that would satisfy her ambitions.
“I don’t just want to go to school so I can get a degree,” Atienza said. “I want to get an education. I want to be educated on a higher level so I have more to offer society than a dry martini. I feel like I have more to offer the world than a perfect cocktail.”
School is her first priority today, but it hadn’t ever interested her before because it wasn’t challenging.
“Nothing I did was interesting to me unless it was an art or English class…I don’t feel like the environment I grew up in was conducive to going to college right after high school,” Atienza said.
Her childhood neighborhood, Hilltop, a district in Tacoma, wasn’t home to many who went to college. She wasn’t accustomed to seeing adults go to college, so she didn’t either.
At 20, and for the years to follow, all Atienza was interested in was instant gratification.
“I wasn’t looking at my life, where I wanted to be five years from now or 10 years from now, I was looking at where we were going in the next 20 minutes,” Atienza said. “I was very short-sighted. I don’t know exactly why; I just know that that’s what it was.”
She chose to go to school to become a dental assistant but decided that the career simply wasn’t for her because, again, she didn’t face a challenge.
“I breezed right through dental assisting school,” Atienza said. “It was as easy as pie… I graduated, but I went to go work in a dental office and it just wasn’t challenging to me and I was like ‘Well, that’s not what I want to do either.’”
She started a career in bartending, but it has become too uneventful, unchanging, and unfulfilling.
“I’m not a stagnant person, and I feel like I got stagnant bartending and I was just going through the motions,” Atienza said. “It was just something I was doing. But there was nothing, no substance, coming out of it. There was nothing that made me self-reflect. Nothing that made me look at the world around me differently. Nothing. I just feel like I wasted years on nothingness.”
Her family, including her son, 14, also motivated her to begin college. She wanted to finish college before he did, so she could set the example that attending college is important. She didn’t feel she could ask her son to attend college if she hadn’t.
“I don’t want to be a hypocrite,” Atienza said.
Atienza’s younger sister just obtained her degree from Seattle Central Community College and inspired Atienza to pursue education at a community college. Their mother, who went to a school of cosmetology, is the only other member of their family who continued with her education after high school. Atienza wants to take her education a step further by attending Pierce and then University of Washington Tacoma.
At Pierce, Atienza has begun to truly enjoy her education for the first time in her life.
“As crazy as it drives me when I’m overwhelmed with papers due and tons of reading and things like that, as crazy as it drives me, that’s what drives me to keep going, because I am challenged,” Atienza said.
She’s found her niche in her classes, too. Her favorite classes, English courses taught by professor Beth Stevens, have been the ones that she has found the most success in.
She took English 245 in winter quarter, and when Stevens mentioned she would be teaching a class surrounding the civil rights movement, Atienza immediately registered for it when it became available.
Stevens’ classes have made Atienza question what she will choose as a major when she transfers to a four-year university.
She originally thought she would major in marketing, but she said she’s starting to think humanities might be what she is passionate about.
“I know that there’s not a ton of money in it,” Atienza said, “but that’s not really where I’m trying to go with my life…now, because of how these classes have affected me personally, I’m starting to think I may need to reconsider my major.”
Atienza’s most life-changing experience in Stevens’ classes was the creation of her final project in the English 245 class. She was given the opportunity to write a paper or depict her thoughts through an artistic expression. Atienza chose to create a painting.
“I’ve always been into the arts. I feel like I can just express myself (more easily) that way,” Atienza said. “It just comes more naturally to me than when I sit behind a computer and try to write something. I’ll always get it done, but it just seems that it doesn’t come as easy as art does to me.”
She studied Native American culture and the disappearance of much of the culture after the arrival of Europeans and felt that the experience changed her.
“It was just moving. Some of the pieces we read just about the complete annihilation of Native American culture, it was just moving. I feel like it affected my soul,” Atienza said. “It definitely changed my perception on everything having to do with the Native American community, and it just was an emotional journey, doing that, painting that, and then writing that. “
She couldn’t stop shaking or crying as she presented the piece to her class. Though she was nervous, it was hard for her to present because the topic had so greatly affected her.
Atienza decided, at the last minute, to submit her piece to the Pierce College Puyallup Spring Student Exhibition. She loved her piece, but had expected the extent of its fame would be as a painting hanging in her home.
Though she was sick, Atienza chose to attend the May 7 reception for the opening of the gallery because she knew Stevens would be there in support of her and her work.
As Pierce College Puyallup President Marty Cavalluzzi began listing the winners, two honorable mentions were named before the first place prize was awarded. He called Atienza’s name for first place.
“I had a piece of cheese in my mouth when he called me,” Atienza said. “I was absolutely shocked. “
What started as a class project had just won first prize. It meant so much to Atienza that someone outside of her family had recognized her as special.
“It was a life-changing moment, for sure,” Atienza said. “And beyond that, just to have it receive so well and people to recognize the work that I put into it was beyond flattering. I’ve never really won anything or had anybody look at anything I’ve done like that.”
It was another reminder to Atienza that she was meant to come to Pierce to begin changing her life.
“It kind of reaffirmed to me that I’m on the right path, and that this is the right time,” Atienza said.
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