• March 25, 2024

Mother of five earns bachelor’s degree and lands dream job at STC

Mother of five earns bachelor’s degree and lands dream job at STC
Sandra Leal

Higher education once felt impossible for Sandra Leal, a devoted mother and longtime caregiver. Yet, through South Texas College, that dream is now a reality alongside a newfound passion for guiding future first responders towards successful careers.

As one of the most recent graduates of the college’s Bachelor’s in Organizational Leadership program, the Edinburg native has just achieved a goal that had been 34 years in the making.

“Growing up I never knew anybody that had a college education, so earning a bachelor’s degree was always a personal goal of mine,” the 50-year-old said. “I never had a clear definition of what I wanted to become, but I knew I wanted a degree, any degree.”

At 16 years old, and as a teen mom, Leal said she had no other option but to drop out of high school and become a stay-at-home mom, a difficult start to a path that would ultimately lead her to success.

“I became a mother at 16, and again at 17. I didn’t want to give up on my dreams so I made the effort to earn my GED diploma and explored the possibility of being a math teacher,” she recounted. “It wasn’t my dream per say, but my life was changed. My priority then was to find a career that would work around my children’s schedule.”

However, attending the former Pan American University, now known as the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV), being a full-time student posed a significant challenge when she lacked transportation and had to depend on others for rides.

“I believed then that education just wasn’t going to be for me. From there I chose to seek secretarial and administrative assistant jobs, anything with regular hours Monday through Friday,” she said. “But after the birth of my third child, I found myself no longer married so now I also had to provide on my own.”

It was while working of her secretarial or administrative assistant jobs, that Leal discovered an opportunity to have her education funded and in 2010, she graduated from the University of Phoenix with an online associate degree in accounting.

In addition to being a student and mother, Leal, as an only child, also faced becoming her mother’s sole caregiver.

Her mother battled various long-term complications from diabetes.

“Even though I had remarried, at this point I had five children and cared for my mother, so the dream of earning a bachelor’s degree was long forgotten,” she explained. “When she passed away, I told myself I would go back to school but I didn’t.”

Leal’s journey finally led to STC in 2020 as an administrative assistant in the Teaching and Learning Center where she found the strength and encouragement needed to further her education.

“At STC, I learned more than anywhere else in my more than 20 years of experience. I grew tremendously both professionally and personally,” she said. “My colleagues and bosses told me, ‘You can’t work in higher education without striving for a degree.’ It was the encouragement I needed.”

At her own pace, Sandra became a part-time student and graduated in December 2023 with a bachelor’s degree in Organizational Leadership.

“I wasn’t really doing it to get another job, I was doing it for myself, but I actually got a promotion within the college before I graduated,” she said proudly. “That’s where I found something that I really enjoy: helping students.”

Last May, Leal started a position as a Public Safety Compliance Specialist at STC’s Regional Center for Public Safety Excellence in Pharr, ensuring that every student that aspires to be a police officer or a firefighter is ready to join the profession.

“My main duty is to ensure that every single applicant meets the criteria set by state law,” she explained. “These academies are intense; they’re accelerated programs meant to shape skilled professionals, and I find it incredibly rewarding to assist them from start to finish.”

She is now ready to take her passion and experience to Weslaco, as a vital part of the team overseeing STC’s new police academy at the Mid-Valley campus set to start in July 2024.

“Last commencement I saw my first set of students graduate, and to know they’re out there now as peace officers and firefighters across the Rio Grande Valley, it’s truly gratifying,” she added. “For the police academy specifically, it’s a rigorous journey where a strong mindset is needed. It’s a long process, but I take pride in helping those aspiring professionals not only get into the academy, but also successfully complete the 22-week program.”

As a first-generation graduate, Leal’s efforts to set an example for her children have proven successful; one of her children earned a bachelor’s degree from STC a semester before her, and another is expected to graduate this spring.

“I wish I would’ve known about STC earlier in life because it has been such a monumental part of who I am now,” she said. “I don’t know what my next goal is, but I definitely know I am where I belong and I truly enjoy what I do.”

For more information about STC’s Police Academy or more programs offered at STC’s Regional Center for Public Safety Excellence, visit southtexascollege.edu/rcpse/ or call 956-872-4208.

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