Before Mary Casillas Salas ever walked through the halls of the California State Capitol as an assembly member, before she became the first Latina to serve on the Chula Vista City Council and before she was ever elected to her current position as the first Latina mayor of the City of Chula Vista in 2014, Salas was a student at Southwestern College.
Salas, like many of the students who attend Southwestern College, was at a tremendous turning point in her life. At the age of 37, Salas found herself divorced with two daughters. She was forced to redefine herself after 17 years of marriage, most of which she spent as a stay-at-home mother with a few part-time retail and banking jobs along the way.
“I looked at my life and I thought to myself, ‘what do I want my life to be like in the future and what kind of life do I want my children to have?’” Salas said. “In order for me to provide for my children and provide for myself in a very independent way where I would never be dependent on anyone again, I needed to go back to school.”
Salas first enrolled in two classes in the summer of 1985—tennis and a Mexican American history course. She wasn’t alone, however, because her fresh-out-of-high school daughter, Michelle, also enrolled as a freshman with her. Her other daughter, Sarah, was still in high school and a few years away from becoming a student at Southwestern College herself. Salas’ nights at home turned into study sessions with both her daughters.
“I remember the three of us studying together in the family room,” she said. “Everyone had their different homework and we would all take turns fighting over the word processor.”
As an older student, Salas developed a plan to get through Southwestern College, but she didn’t want the easy way through. She picked tough professors who she knew would challenge her. She finished her requirements quickly and graduated with honors before transferring to San Diego State, where she would graduate magna cum laude with a degree in social work.
“With every little success I gained more confidence in myself,” she said. “Getting an education and seeing the successes that you build for yourself allows you to take further steps and to challenge yourself more.”
Salas embodies so many of the non-traditional students who have walked through Southwestern College, wondering what more their lives can become. For Salas, most of her professional accomplishments happened after the age of 40.
“I believe in life-long learning and life-long challenges,” she said. “If people challenge themselves, they’ll be surprised at the strength that they can find within themselves.”
Southwestern College’s impact on her gives Salas a deep, emotional attachment to the only community college in the South Bay that has been serving Chula Vista and the surrounding communities since 1961.
“If there hadn’t been a community college, if it had just been SDSU, it would have been very, very difficult to for me to complete my education,” she said. “I am eternally grateful for Southwestern College.”
Even it wasn’t for the connection that Salsas has with Southwestern College, she said she is grateful for how the college enriches the community she serves, including providing opportunities for students who are looking to transfer to a four-year university and for community members looking to develop their personal skills.
“Southwestern College was there for me and it’s there for whoever wants to access it,” Salas said. “You will never be stuck if you want to do something more with your life because you’ll always have Southwestern College.”