When discussing her decision to go back to school after a seven year hiatus, Sotha Saeteurn (gender pronouns she/her/hers) said: “At the end of the day, you’re doing it for yourself.”
Sotha, who graduated from California State University, Fresno in May, traversed a route of higher education which she considers non-traditional in many respects. From taking a seven-year break from school, to being a transfer student, to being a mother, Sotha’s experiences were anything but ordinary.
Sotha’s decision to go back to school arose out of working as an Instructional Aide for students with special needs. Her experiences led her to have a better sense of the career trajectory she wanted to take.
“The joy and smile that [the kids] have in understanding something that they previously couldn’t understand–seeing that made me happy,” said Sotha. “That told me that I want to be a special education teacher.”
Her passion for working alongside children with special needs led her to enroll in Fresno City College. However, Sotha’s decision to enroll in college was not an easy one for her, nor for her family.
“They were mad at me for going back to school, but I always told them that it would be worth it. I needed them to be in my corner for me to get this career that I wanted and that I loved.” she said. “It was hard in the beginning because my husband was working night shifts and I was in the morning–finding someone to watch my kids while I was in school was hard.”
Sotha, in the far left, is pictured with her partner and four children.
Perhaps one of Sotha’s biggest battles at Fresno City College was her pregnancy during the 2017-2018 school year.
“Her due date was in the middle of the spring semester,” Sotha said. “I was unsure if I would be able to complete the semester with passing grades.”
Nonetheless, her passion for her field led her to end her time at Fresno City with high marks amidst a busy schedule.
“After working, getting the homework done, and taking care of the kids, I think I ended up with a 3.8 or 4.0 the semester that I had my youngest daughter,” she said. Her GPA earned her a spot on the Dean’s List for that semester.
Sotha eventually finished her education at Fresno City College and transferred to Fresno State as a Liberal Studies major. But upon beginning her studies at Fresno State, Sotha immediately noticed the stark contrast between herself and her peers.
For one, Sotha said she noticed that she could not relate to many of her peers, who often went to college right after graduating high school.
“I wasn’t able to connect with a lot of people unless they were people who had kids, so it was very hard to connect with my peers,” she said. “The older ones also had their lives going on. In some classes I felt like I was alone.”
Additionally, Sotha said that she often felt as if she missed out on a traditional college experience due to her added responsibilities both at home and at work.
“I felt like I always wanted that college experience–going to football games, going to events and stuff. But I couldn’t do those things because I had responsibilities back at home,” she added. “I had work in the morning, I had to finish homework, I had to take care of the kids.”
Sotha added that the stress from her college experience was elevated due to the severity of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Not even a year into my time at Fresno State, we had a global pandemic,” she said. “I personally thought it was only going to happen for the remainder of my Spring 2020 semester but it ended up being until I graduated.”
Nonetheless, Sotha’s drive for becoming a special education teacher was more than enough for her to hurdle over the stress which accompanied all of her responsibilities and hardships.
Her passion for her field eventually led her to end her studies at Fresno State with a cumulative GPA well above the 3.0 mark. She now plans on taking a year-long break before going back to school for both a credentials and a master’s program.
When asked if she had any advice for other non-traditional students, Sotha emphasized the importance of taking advantage of collegiate and state resources, especially those centered around financial assistance. She cited the Extended Opportunity Program & Services (EOPS Program) CalWORKS as two of many services worth looking into.
Most importantly, Sotha emphasized that she encourages students to follow their own path and not worry about being traditional.
“If you don’t feel comfortable going to a four year college, go to a community college. Don’t believe that a 4 year college is what makes you look good,” she said “At the end of the day it’s your degree. It’s you who’s learning.” - Sotha Saeteurn (She/Her)
By Rafael Franco (He/Him)
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