A grandparent’s life lessons help student fight for the career she desperately wanted
KarlLesia Carson knows all about keeping goals alive while barely holding your nose above the waterline of disaster. Her survival was all-consuming because it would also impact the lives of her sons Jaquaylon (now 19) and Dericco (now 9).
Through it all – financial struggles, her younger son’s special needs and the difficulties and eventual dissolution of her marriage – she held onto her childhood dream of becoming a pharmacist. She pinned her hopes onto that vision that first took shape when she was just a child in Texarkana, Arkansas.
Her grandfather, William, owned his own small-town pharmacy and KarlLesia learned some of the most important lessons of her life at his knee. “He was ‘the man in the white jacket’ and I was so proud of him,” as the only pharmacist in their small town, she remembers. “I was Papa’s girl.” And William would make sure ‘his girl’ was prepared for whatever life might bring her way, whether opportunity or disaster.
In his quiet way William gave her two essential tools to succeed: basic survival skills and a model of accomplishment she might emulate to achieve her own goals.
KarlLesia was not even school age when she got to steer the Ford truck her Papa drove. He told her that when she ‘turned 8’, he would start to let her sit by herself to drive. “I know what I’m doing, just let me drive,” she told him. She took the wheel – and the driver’s seat – two years early. Their rationalization? “Moms and Dads always say ‘no’, but grandfathers and grandmothers will always say ‘go!’,” says KarlLesia.
William used nature to teach KarlLesia self-reliance. “He taught me how to make a fire, how to fish, outdoor things; everything was a lesson,” she remembers. ‘He would tell me, ‘this is what you would do if you had to survive.’” She felt the self-confidence that proven skills bring. It would be several years more before she called that discipline forth for her financial and emotional survival.
As a teenager, KarlLesia worked as a pharmacy cashier. “I told myself that this was the closest thing to being a pharmacist,” she says. “When someone asked me something, I was always in pretend mode, as if I’m the pharmacist. It makes me feel good to help people.”
By the time KarlLesia was in her early 30s she, her (then) husband and two young sons were living in Fresno. She was working nights in hospitality as the Night Auditor of a hotel. One long night she thought to herself, “This is not what I want to do.” It was time to fulfill that childhood dream.
She found the Pharmacy Technology program at SJVC’s Fresno campus. “I needed that program,” says KarlLesia. She also needed her full-time job. She decided she could do both. “Hey, what’s 15-months! I can be working in a career in no time.”
KarlLesia enrolled in the Pharmacy Technology program on the same day she took a tour of the campus. “I remember it like it was my first day,” she says. “They were awesome!”
Her daily schedule as a student, employee, wife and mother was a true test of survival. She worked at the hotel from 10:00 PM until 6:00 AM, came home, got dressed for her 8:00 AM to 3:00 PM class, Monday-Thursday. She had no car, so had to be at the bus stop by 7:00 AM. Once back home KarlLesia made dinner and made sure Jaquaylon did his homework and Dericco, felt her love. She grabbed pockets of sleep when she could and tried to catch up on weekends in between studies. She was determined to keep her balance on this very tight rope.
“I never one time fell asleep in class,” she says with some pride. But there were some days she got to class late or had to get permission to turn an assignment in a little past the due date. “Mrs. Sohal was an amazing instructor,” says KarlLesia. “She knew a lot of what I was going through and would give me advice. Once when the bus was late, she let me make up a mid-term. It wasn’t a perfect road, but I was always there.”
It was a pressing schedule, but KarlLesia was in her element in the classroom. “They give you all this hands-on experience,” she says. “We would interact with other medical career programs, so you get a broader understanding of other medical industry positions.” Students would alternate playing the part of ‘patient’ in their exercises.
Classes were a joy and she was absorbing everything she could that would propel her forward in her career.
About mid-way through her program KarlLesia lost her balance. There were problems at home, transportation to school was always sketchy and Dericco’s autism required special childcare that was difficult to secure. KarlLesia’s high blood pressure was an early warning signal. A few months before she would have completed her Pharmacy Technology program, she had to take a leave of absence.
“I had to have bed rest and I had to let my hotel job go,” she says. Her mom, Lesia, came to help. KarlLesia had come too far to give up now. Lesia went back home to Texarkana and KarlLesia dove back into her program full-force and landed on the Dean’s List for academic achievement. She would complete the seven remaining months of her program with a 3.5 GPA.
In the weeks before graduation KarlLesia began working with SJVC’s Career Services Department. “They bring you in and help you start doing resumes. They also give you information about jobs that were open. That’s how I got to Walgreens. I started my externship there and once I got done with the program I would get hired on as a Pharmacy Technician.” She worked in that capacity for a year after she graduated from her program in 2014.
In 2015 KarlLesia packed up her boys and moved back to her hometown on the Arkansas-Texas border. She is working as a Pharmacy Technician in a busy pharmacy. “I’m the first person at the customer service desk, interacting with customers, dealing with patients. We’re a pharmacy within a medical facility so a lot of medications are delivered to nursing homes.”
She is enjoying being ‘back home’ and introducing her boys to all the comforts and support of being close to family. Dericco is 9-years old now and although he is non-verbal, he shows his joy in how he interacts with nature. “He kicks up the dirt, plays in the leaves and is fascinated with the rain, which in winter, spring, summer and fall, you’re going to get it,” KarlLesia laughs. “He is so smart, knows what’s going on, what’s being said. He is content in his world.”
Now it’s just KarlLesia and the boys and they are redefining what it is to be a family. They have each other in a new way and they are all learning to be more independent. “As long as they are in my presence and we are laughing and playing, we’re good.” She says. Extended family members are never far away, so support, encouragement and lots of love are always close at hand.
Jaquaylon has started a new job. “I tell him he still has to have a career and has to find out what he likes to go and make one he likes.” Says KarlLesia. “He’s interested in engineering and I tell him I will support whatever he wants to do.”
Support was something KarlLesia didn’t have a lot of when she risked everything for her own career. But she had the survival skills given to her so many years earlier. Their lessons of self-reliance would be enough.
KarlLesia’s papa passed away years ago, but her dad, Karl, seems to have picked up where Papa left off. “My dad asks me, ‘You still thinking about doing the pharmacy course…. you’re getting older, you know.’” It’s an echo – and a gentle push – that still gives her a little thrill.
“Now I’m back around family, I could do it,” she admits. “I’ll give it about a year before I start The Plan.” Have no doubt, somewhere there is a white coat with her name on it.
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