Hanford Gen Ed instructor shares life experiences with students for real-world check
“I’ve had the child care issue, two kids in diapers and twenty bucks in my pocket to last me a week,” says Cindy Brooks, General Education instructor for the Hanford campus. “The Dollar Store was my best friend. It’s scary.”
As a young, single mom, Cindy worked two to three jobs to keep their heads above water. She was a bartender, waitress, weigh-master (at truck stops), apartment manager, YMCA after-school program supervisor, Head Start teacher and, with her third husband of 11 years, Mitchell, even got into the restaurant business. “I’ll never do that again, but can check that off my bucket list,” says Cindy.
Along the way, Cindy squeezed in as much education as her demanding life would allow. She got her Associate’s Degree in 1987, online paralegal certification a few years ago and a Bachelor’s degree in Legal Studies in 2014.
For the last five years, she has worked off and on in her own business providing legal documents for clients who cannot afford attorney rates.
She and Mitch want to provide a stable home for their six children (four still at home), and Cindy thought a part-time teaching position might provide them with greater security. She also felt she might use her life struggles to benefit others trying to balance work, school and family.
“They know I’ve been where they’ve been,” says Cindy. “I try to show them that education can change your life. No one is going to give you anything in this world; you’re going to have to work for it.”
The truth in her words and her shared personal experiences hit home with a lot of her students. “Mrs. Brooks uses so many of her personal life experiences to explain the process of things in the world,” says Samantha Martinez, a recent Business Administration graduate. “She has also had a big collection of jobs and uses all of those experiences to explain professionalism and how it’s all the same, but yet a little bit different pertaining to your work.”
Cindy creates a close classroom environment. “It’s important to get to know them (students), where they’re coming from and their home life,” she says. “Unless they trust you, they’re not going to open up to you. Once you have that trust, it makes it all a little bit easier.”
When a level of trust is established, life lessons can be heard and appreciated. “I want them to be able to think for themselves; think about what they are doing – professionally and personally – and make good choices in their lives. Actions have consequences.”
Cindy uses her own successes and failures in hopes of saving her students some missteps. “I’m a realist and I don’t sugarcoat anything,” says Cindy. “I tell them this is how life is; be prepared for it. If you’re prepared for it, you can tackle it.”
It is not an easy reality to grasp. “I had to learn the hard way, by trial and error,” she says. “I didn’t have anyone to teach me that in life.”
Cindy balances the hard points in life with the fun parts of learning. She has used field trips, scavenger hunts and even rap to drive important teaching moments. “I try to correlate it to what we’re learning and get them thinking, but at the same time have fun.”
“The enthusiasm she brings to class helps us get through our modules,” says Samantha.
It is a mutually satisfying experience that culminates with Cindy’s favorite moment: Graduation. “Many here are a little rough around the edges, but by the time they graduate they are so professional and their entire thinking process has changed,” says Cindy. “They’re a totally different person for coming here, and I’ve had a little part in that.”
Cindy’s influence is felt long after her students graduate. Occasionally, graduates drop by to tell Cindy how careers are going, or to get some advice on a work situation. “I wasn’t expecting long-term relationships, but you bond with your students. That was one of my biggest surprises.”
It really shouldn’t surprise Cindy that she connects so well with her students. The lines between their life experiences are blurred with shared obstacles, hopes and accomplishments. Cindy’s perspective gives her students perspective and a glimpse at where they might land one day.
“I’m 49 years old and I’m finally where I want to be. I had many things to overcome just to survive. My religion gets me through a lot and I believe God’s going to put me where He wants me…and this is where I am.”
Many of Cindy’s students appreciate that fact of her life.