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The Power of Community logo
The Power of Community logo

Since the creation of Pacific Oaks, community has formed the foundation of our institution, welcoming different cultures, backgrounds, and perspectives as an opportunity to enhance the learning, service, and success of our students.

At Pacific Oaks, the power of community means many things. It means respecting the communities our students come from. It means valuing their unique perspectives and experience as they join our community, helping strengthen and diversify our College. And it means supporting and guiding them as they use their past as a foundation to positively impact the future of communities they will go on to serve.



Click on the images below to read what the power of community means to different members of our Pacific Oaks family.

Advocate for Change


The power of community means learning how to advocate for change.

Denise Smith knew she wanted to do more to help children. The water crisis in  Flint, Michigan provided her the chance to answer the call. The community of Flint with strong and resilient residents rebounding from high poverty, troubled schools, and disinvestment reminded Detroit, her hometown.

After earning her master’s degree in Human Development from Pacific Oaks, Denise Smith had held a range of positions in early childhood education and childcare, an administrator for Early Head Start and Head Start programs; a director of Michigan’s tiered quality rating and improvement system (TQRIS), and vice president of  a non profit dedicated to early learning from the cradle to career education reform.

The crisis in Flint called for comprehensive interventions to prevent the most at-risk children in the town  who may have been impacted by high lead concentrations from suffering disproportionately. Denise pulled from the training and experience she gained at Pacific Oaks and joined forces with a diverse group of civic leaders to find solutions for this community in great need. Together, they opened two high-quality early childhood centers in two years’ time.

In 2017 she was hired as executive director for the Flint Early Childhood Collaborative and Educare Flint. Educare is a nationally recognized nonprofit providing early childhood programs to financially disadvantaged infants, toddlers, and preschoolers. The program currently serves 220 children and families in Flint on an annual basis, with plans to grow. For example, it’s sister school Cummings Great Expectations shares in the mission to provide high quality child care and early education that is developmentally accurate, linguistically appropriate, and customized to fit each individual child’s needs.Together, these schools are providing constant care to a community in great need bringing comfort and support to hundreds of children and their families.

“Pacific Oaks introduced me to intricacies of infant toddler work, and the dance between child and provider,” she says. “If children are given the opportunities and experiences like those we’re helping to provide in Flint, they can become their best selves.”

Denise Smith
Pacific Oaks College

Full-time Mom


The power of community means a full-time mom can get her degree.

Chaz Dennis knew that pursuing a M.A. in Marriage and Family Therapy would be hard work. But she didn’t know that she would become pregnant part way through her program. Long days became longer, sleep became less frequent, and she thought the degree of her dreams may no longer be within reach.

That’s when the community at Pacific Oaks stepped up, understanding that motherhood was a gift, not a burden. So the staff got creative and made sure she could keep up with classwork. Professors and her fellow classmates provided any support she needed and were available whenever she needed it, even taking notes if she wasn’t able to attend class.

The support, and Chaz’s hard work, allowed her to graduate on time and get to work as an agent of change in her local community, putting her new master’s degree to work and helping families heal.

“Pacific Oaks helped me by just being really encouraging. When I found out I was pregnant, the faculty was so understanding and could relate to my situation. They were always able to work with me so that I could still graduate on time and do what I needed to do. It’s really like a family here, and everyone just tries to help each other.”

Chaz Dennis
Pacific Oaks College

Passion into Profession


The power of community means turning your passion into a profession.

Heaven Cisse grew up seeing the mental health crisis in her South Central Los Angeles community and, at times, within her own family. She has recognized the need for culturally-based treatments, and understands the legacy and impact slavery and racism has had on Africans of the diaspora, particularly African Americans.

But she’s no longer merely a witness.

Within days of graduating she was offered a full-time job working at the Weber Community Center in South Central Los Angeles—a center providing comprehensive outpatient mental health and substance abuse services to at risk children and youth, and the same agency where Pacific Oaks local partnerships helped her secure valuable hands-on practicum experience while finishing her master’s degree in marriage and family therapy at our Pasadena campus.

“I’ve always been passionate about the issues facing my community, but thanks to Pacific Oaks, I can now stand in the gap between the hurt my community has felt, and the healing we can create.”

Heaven Cisse
Pacific Oaks College

Life experience is valuable

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The power of community means your life experience is as valuable as a textbook.

Trauma. Redemption. Triumph.

These are the words that illustrate Pacific Oaks alumna Sky Lea Ross’s life. Ross was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder at age 15 as a result of physical and emotional abuse she endured from her mother and other family members. But she did not let this hold her back from accomplishing her life goals. Self-driven, Ross went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in gender studies and then found her way to Pacific Oaks College where she earned a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy.

Ross says she feels especially connected to her area of study because she is able to relate her studies to her life experiences and those of people close to her. She appreciates how the Pacific Oaks curriculum is not only applicable in the classroom, but also in her own life.

“Pacific Oaks College will trigger you,” she said. “It will make you grow and become stronger and more resilient. You’re not just learning the material, you’re learning about yourself.”

Among many goals, Ross aspires to open a sex-positive clinic with colleagues and work with members of the LGBTQ+ community as well as victims of sexual assault, drawing from her own background and utilizing the knowledge Pacific Oaks has equipped her with to help others overcome traumatic experiences like those in her life.

“It’s important to do the work to know yourself,” she said. “Only when you know yourself—your strengths, weaknesses, trigger points, passions—can you understand and help others. Pacific Oaks College helps by enlightening you about your own struggles and also those of your community so that you can make the greatest impact after you graduate. It’s worth every penny.”

Sky Lea Ross
Pacific Oaks College

Professors with Open Doors


The power of community means professors with open doors and open minds.

Veronica Estrada, Ed.D., faculty in Pacific Oaks’ School of Human Development, doesn’t just say she cares about her students, she shows it. From proudly showcasing pages from student theses papers on her office door to proactively engaging students inside the classroom. She takes the time to understand each individuals’ background, academic goals, and insecurities.

“What I’ve noticed is that a lot of students have academic trauma,” she says. “They may feel that they are not smart enough or not bright enough. Maybe something happened to them in elementary school, junior high, high school, or community college that has really affected them academically. So, when they’re in my classroom, I share that I also went through a lot of academic difficulties to get where I am, but I didn’t give up.”

A few years ago she decided to help students visualize their future success in a truly unique way. She brought to class the doctoral robe she had worn at her own graduation and asked her students, specifically some that seemed to be struggling, to put it on and describe how they felt.

“It really impacted them. Many described how incredible it felt and how it motivated them,” she says. “These were students that had such low self-esteem or a lot of self-doubt. But just putting on this robe helped change their thinking about themselves and what they are capable of accomplishing.”

Today, putting on Dr. Estrada’s doctoral robe has become somewhat of a tradition for Pacific Oaks’ students, as word-of-mouth keeps the tradition alive from one semester to the next.

“Often times, all a student needs to succeed is that one connection, maybe to a faculty member, or someone else that believes in them. It can really help change their way of thinking,” Dr. Estrada says. “I’ve learned from students that at the end of the day we’re wired for human connection, and if we can connect with each other the power of learning is so much stronger.”

Veronica Estrada
Pacific Oaks College

Proud of where you came from


The power of community means being proud of where you came from.

Billy Truong was born in Nha Trang, Vietnam in 1978, three years after the Communist Party had taken complete control of the country’s government. Because Truong’s family supported U.S. involvement during the Vietnam War, they were labeled as traitors and forced to flee.

The family settled in Los Angeles, but struggled to adapt to their new life. Truong’s parents spoke little English and owned few possessions, relying heavily on the support of the American government and the kindness of strangers to help them survive.

“My upbringing wasn’t easy, but it shaped the person I am today,” he says. “I feel a deep sense of commitment to use my personal experiences to help advocate for others in tough situations.”

In particular, Truong has volunteered his time to support children experiencing homelessness for more than a decade with organizations like the nonprofit LA on Cloud 9. In that time, he also earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Pacific Oaks College in human development.

“In one of my classes at Pacific Oaks, I was able to reflect on and analyze my childhood,” Truong says. “It gave me the chance to tell my story as a refugee for the first time. The level of respect I was treated with made me comfortable to open up and share my experiences, and it led me to realize just how much I’ve accomplished, how far I’ve come, and how proud I am of that story. Now I feel like it is my responsibility to give other people that same respect and support I received at Pacific Oaks.”

Billy Truong
Alumni & Adjunct Faculty
Pacific Oaks College

Look out for each other

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The power of community means classmates that look out for each other. 

Lucine Yeremian wants to use a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy to help the less fortunate—specifically homeless and incarcerated individuals.

At Pacific Oaks, she has learned that sometimes you must look inward and help yourself before you’re capable of helping others. And to do this requires a strong support system, which Yeremian believes she has found in the community at Pacific Oaks.

“There were multiple times when I have felt like giving up,” she says. “I was overwhelmed, but my classmates have been there to pick me up.”

Most notably, she recalls the day she thought she might lose her mother.

“While I was in school, my mom was hit by a car,” she says. “I was still on campus when I heard the news and was so distraught that I wasn’t even able to drive. But my classmates were there to support me. They helped calm me down so I could safely make the thirty-minute drive to go see my mom in the hospital. Otherwise, there is no way I would have made it without hurting myself or someone else.”

Yeremian makes it a point to support her classmates as well, staying late after class to help some with homework or simply ready to listen if someone needs to chat. She recalls the environment at Pacific Oaks being similar to her community growing up.

“In my community everybody would help each other,” she says. “If you were out of town someone would watch your house. If your car broke down, the community would help out. Even if your paycheck was coming late, we could help you out with food. That’s what the power of community is to me, and that’s how I feel about Pacific Oaks.”

Lucine Yeremian
Pacific Oaks College

Stand up for your beliefs


The power of community means classmates that look out for each other. 

When we think about American immigration from a historical perspective we might think of the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, and ships filled to capacity with the hungry, tired, and weak of other nations. But rarely do we think about internal migration.

“I was born and raised in California,” says Cheryl Greer-Jarman, the longest-tenured faculty member at Pacific Oaks College, who is celebrating 40 years with the school in 2019. “But my parents migrated from the South looking for greater opportunity.”

Born during the height of the Civil Rights era, Greer-Jarman’s upbringing didn’t spare her from the ignorance and bigotry of America’s past, and her parents were determined to prepare her for being black in America.

“My mom was adamant about teaching us what it is like to be African American in the context of the Civil Rights movement,” she says. “It was very important to my mom that we knew and visited our relatives in the South. Many of those early experiences shaped my identity because there were things that happened there that did not happen in California.”

Greer-Jarman remembers there being only a few places where her family could stop during trips—hotels where “colored people” could stay. Sometimes the family would stop to wash themselves in gas stations because there just weren’t any hotels that would accept them nearby.

However, according to Greer-Jarman, equally important to defining her American identity was growing up in a Christian home, where she was taught to love everybody. As she got older and began noticing the contrast between how a nation founded on the principles of Christianity speaks and acts, childhood disequilibrium became replaced by teenage anger.

“I was very angry,” she says. “One morning when we were engaged in the ritual of reciting the pledge, I stopped and paid attention to the words. When we arrived at the part that says ‘liberty and justice for all’ I had flashbacks of the many things I had experienced. And I stopped saying the Pledge of Allegiance that day. I have not said it since. Until there is liberty and justice for all I am not going to pretend that there is.”

Some may call that unpatriotic. But Greer-Jarman thinks her silent protest defines what being an American is all about.

“Think about the people that were the first to come here, they were fleeing their own oppression,” she says. “I was born here, I consider myself patriotic and I love this country. Some people think that if we don’t agree with certain things about the U.S. then we should leave. But those people are more focused on the group that is unhappy rather than the issues the group is unhappy about in the first place. Those people don’t have to be unhappy because it works well for them and often assume that if someone just works hard like them, that person will receive what they have. But you know best that something is not working when you are a part of the group that it’s not working for.”

Cheryl Greer-Jarman
School of Human Development Core Faculty
Pacific Oaks College

Creating connections


The Power of Community means creating connections.

At Pacific Oaks, social justice, diversity, and equality are key values that color every part of the curriculum. For alumna Lark Sontag, M.A., this is why she chose to attend: to focus on early childhood education and all the different types of children that may be in the classroom.

“My sister has autism, so I grew up in a household where I was used to neurodivergent children. I didn’t view it as a disability, I just saw it as kind of a personality thing. Once I started teaching, I learned a lot of the other teachers didn’t know how to communicate with these students at all, so they relied on me to help,” Sontag says.

“I felt so isolated. I was reading books, educating myself on how to best serve these students—but at the end of the day, I was making it up as I went, I never had a mentor or someone else to help. And then I started realizing, I can’t be the only person that knows how to deal with neurodivergent kids or visually impaired autistic kids—or I shouldn’t be,” Sontag explains her impetus for thinking bigger. “I knew I needed to make a difference, but I felt like I could only make a difference for so many people when I was in a classroom every day.”

While she was experiencing isolation treating a variety of students in her area, she knew there had to be other teachers who felt the same, that had ideas—innovative ideas like hers.

She found her community in “Hello,” the online community of the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). Eventually NAEYC recognized that she was driving interactions and building up the relationships in the forums and offered her a job. As the Hello Community Engagement Manager, Sontag lives out Pacific Oaks’ mission for community-focused education.

“I wouldn’t have been able to help support bringing special education to preschool teachers without Pacific Oaks. I wanted to help build up the community at Hello, because I saw the ways I needed this in my career,” Sontag says. “At Pacific Oaks, I had experiences that prepared me to give advice to others in early childhood education about bringing a focus on equity in the classroom, and also understand the broader context of how to be a leader.”

Lark Sontag
Pacific Oaks College

Finding a home

Headshots_360x36015The Power of Community means finding a home away from home.

Yoland Treviño, a marriage & family therapy alumna and former board member at Pacific Oaks, brings a unique perspective to education and social justice in America due to her indigenous background.

For someone who emigrated from Guatemala, it’s important to Treviño that the things she does connect with her values as an indigenous Mayan woman. Her respect for her heritage is underscored by the years of hiding it in order to get to where she is today. According to Treviño, families in the Mayan community often hide the true identity of indigenous children so they are able to get educated.

“My family knew that in order to make it in the world, you needed an education,” Treviño says. “In Guatemala, there was terrible discrimination against indigenous people. There was a lot of internalized oppression and they didn’t want me to speak our language or wear our native dress because they wanted me to be able to have opportunities.”

This led Treviño to immigrate to America with her father and siblings when she was just 15 years old. Her first years in Los Angeles were tough—she went from having a tight-knit community in Guatemala to experiencing isolation and an entirely new culture.

That all changed when she found Pacific Oaks College. Treviño connected with Pacific Oaks’ vision of education, and even moved to Pasadena in 1974 to be closer and send her boys to The Children’s School. She later went on to serve on Pacific Oaks’ Board of Trustees.

“As a mother, I’m the steward of my children. They were given to me to love and to nurture. It was my duty to help them become the best human beings they could be. In looking for that, I found Pacific Oaks,” Treviño says. “From the time I learned about it, I felt like I had found my home. I felt like my values were represented here, and that the school was reflective of what I thought was a true education.”

Yoland Treviño
Pacific Oaks College

Campus experience online

Headshots_360x36013The Power of Community means bringing the campus experience online.

Life can come at you fast. Sometimes, that means putting your priorities on hold. For Pacific Oaks College alumnus and Chicago resident Stephen Anderson, it meant waiting until his mid-30s to pursue his bachelor’s degree.

Ironically, Anderson had been working in the field of higher education for years as an enrollment coordinator. But the daily demand of work combined with responsibilities at home made pursuing his own education difficult, if not impossible. He also wasn’t sure what type of degree program could best benefit his career long term.

Then, he discovered Pacific Oaks through his work in admissions operations at Pacific Oaks’ partner organization, TCS Education System.

“When I looked into Pacific Oaks, I realized the human development program could lead me down a variety of career paths,” Anderson says. “It’s a degree that can set you up for success in many different things. In my position at TCS, I would notice that graduates in human development were continuing their education with a master’s in organizational leadership, counseling, counseling psychology, marriage and family therapy, or any other number of fields.”

The fact the program is offered online gave Anderson greater flexibility to balance work and personal life with his educational goals. He also didn’t need to leave Chicago. “I think I even surprised myself,” he says. “Because through it all—working full time and managing a team—I was still able to graduate from a school 2,000 miles away with a 4.0 GPA.”

Anderson believes the culture Pacific Oaks has worked to develop can be felt far beyond the campus classrooms. It is a culture of community reflected in the online programs, too. After finally graduating with his B.A. in Human Development at the age of 36, he credits his experience at Pacific Oaks with helping him move his career forward—he was recently promoted to director of admissions operations.

“Going to college is never what you expect,” Anderson says. “But during my online program at Pacific Oaks College, there was a sense of community and support that gave me the confidence to finish my degree. Everyone pushed me to be better, and finally meeting my classmates and teachers at graduation was a moment I’ll never forget. Online school can be a challenge, but Pacific Oaks makes it worthwhile.”

Stephen Anderson
Pacific Oaks College

Life experience matters

Headshots_360x36019 (1)The Power of Community means your life experience matters.

Aubrey Kliaman has always loved teaching. It’s a passion that began during a summer job as a teenager and eventually inspired her to pursue teaching full time. Ironically, she left college before graduation to fully commit to her career as an educator.

“At some point, I decided that college just really wasn’t for me,” says Kliaman, who worked with preschoolers, kindergarteners, first graders, and children with special needs. After teaching for 20 years, her school closed, forcing her to take a different direction. Confident in her skills and experience, Kliaman quickly found another teaching opportunity, but her decision to leave college years earlier suddenly became a major obstacle. The school wanted to hire her, but needed her to complete more college units for employment eligibility.

“I was definitely worried. I hadn’t been to school in almost 20 years,” she says. “Then, I remembered that different mentors during my career had talked about how Pacific Oaks changed their idea of traditional education, and how much they loved it.”

She enrolled in the B.A. in Human Development program, with a concentration in early childhood education and development. Through Pacific Oaks’ Credit for Learning from Experience program, Kliaman was able to transform her 20 years of teaching experience into credit toward her degree.

“I don’t think pursuing my bachelor’s degree would have been an option if I wasn’t able to gain credit for my experience,” Kliaman says. “Completing almost 30 additional credits isn’t something that I was ready or willing to do, so allowing my experience to count as credit really sort of changed my life.”

Kliaman excelled in the program and credits Pacific Oaks’ teaching style with allowing her to look deeper into her personal development. Students in any academic program are regularly encouraged to relate course subject material to their own personal experiences—sharing with their teacher and fellow students.

“Throughout the program, I just continued to grow as a person,” she says. “Every time I went to class or did an assignment, I felt like I grew as a human being. The way the classes are structured in terms of deep learning through conversation made a huge difference for me.”

In May 2017, more than 20 years removed from initially dropping out of college, Kliaman finally graduated with her bachelor’s degree. And she enjoyed her experience so much that she decided to pursue her master’s degree at Pacific Oaks, too, graduating in May 2019.

“In my time at Pacific Oaks, it wasn’t just about coming to class, doing your work, and leaving,” she says. “It was about being part of a community and supporting each other. I’ve made long-lasting friendships in the short time that I was there because we supported each other, and the experience is something I’ll never forget.”

Aubrey Kliaman
Pacific Oaks College

Becoming a mentor

Headshots_360x36021 The Power of Community means becoming the mentor you never had.

Victor Soto, M.A., a master teacher at Pacific Oaks Children’s School and adjunct professor for the School of Education at Pacific Oaks College, didn’t have the opportunity or encouragement to further his education right after high school.

Working a variety of difficult physical labor jobs, he set his education into motion after running into an old friend who worked as an assistant teacher at a nearby school. He started working at 9th Street School—his first real experience working in a classroom.

Quickly inspired by the classroom and effect teachers are able to have, Soto didn’t stop there. He enrolled at Pacific Oaks College, earning his bachelor’s degree in human development with an emphasis in early childhood education and his master’s degree soon after. His master’s degree helped him become the assistant director of the school, working with parents, teachers, and other administrators. It also allowed him to have greater impact.

“When I became an assistant director I was able to work with and mentor two younger men,” Soto says. “One day I felt comfortable enough to have a conversation with both of them about their future. Why? Because no one had it with me, and I wish someone would have.”

He recalls how he had that conversation with those two men when he was 29, asking them where they saw themselves in five years. When they told him they saw themselves still working there, Soto got real with them. A couple of weeks later, he saw the result of his words.

“One of the men came to tell me that he was saving a lot of his money to buy a car,” Soto says. “However, he changed his mind after my talk with him, saying ‘that car was never going to give me what you have given me. If going to school can allow me to make an impact the way you have, then I know what to do.’ And he enrolled in school. A few years later, he graduated with his bachelor’s, then master’s degree. He attributes his success to our conversation way back then. I am proud of him. And I am also proud that I can have that type of impact on younger men.”

Victor Soto
Alumnus and Faculty
Pacific Oaks College

Inspiring the next generation

Headshots_360x36017 (1) The Power of Community means inspiring the next generation.

For 20 years, Yvonne Davis has taught kindergarten through second grade at Don Benito Elementary School in Pasadena. She has become known as an outstanding teacher throughout her school and beyond—named “Teacher of Excellence” by the Pasadena Rotary Club, a “Teacher Making a Difference” by the California State PTA, and has been repeatedly distinguished as “The Best Teacher in Pasadena” by Pasadena Weekly. It’s easy to see why: Her lessons don’t end when students leave her classroom.

When you visit her classroom, you see a bulletin board decorated with Pacific Oaks memorabilia. A few years ago her school decided to start encouraging students to consider college at a young age, so she became a Pacific Oaks advocate to kindergartners, having gone to The Children’s School and graduated from Pacific Oaks College.

“The theory behind promoting college in preschool and kindergarten is that we should be preparing all children to be college and career ready. Whether they choose those paths or not is their own choice, but we should be talking about it and preparing them academically for college or career all the way,” Davis says.

With decor focused on Pacific Oaks College & Children’s School, the conversation isn’t meant to overwhelm the classroom—but rather complement the traditional course. “We talk about it when the opportunity is there, like when a visitor comes in, we talk about where they went to college. If the connection is there, we make that connection for the children,” Davis says.

Having attended The Children’s School as a toddler, her path eventually brought her back to Pacific Oaks to become an educator. Growing up near Pasadena, Davis intended to go away for college, but after a few semesters realized that the education she was seeking was available right at home. Although the memories about The Children’s School had faded, the feelings the school gave her never went away.

“I remembered it from my childhood as somewhere free and easy, somewhere I felt comfortable, which was not a typical feeling for me outside my home. It was a happy place for me when I was little,” Davis says. “When I went off to college, I realized that not every place is so child focused, and I wanted to be the teacher that focused on the child and the child’s future.”

The community she strives to encourage in her classroom is in service to her ultimate goal to make learning and school fun for students at a young age, so they do continue on and one day find themselves in college—whether at Pacific Oaks or somewhere else.

By bringing Pacific Oaks into her kindergarten classroom through a bulletin board, conversations, and her noble efforts as a teacher, maybe she’ll also inspire one of her students to join the Pacific Oaks community someday.

Yvonne Davis
Pacific Oaks College

Freedom to explore your identity

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The Power of Community means the freedom to explore identity.

Sharon H. Chang remembers the odd looks she got when she was a little girl. She remembers the pain of feeling out of place in the world, whether it was in the town where she grew up in Connecticut, or visiting family in Taiwan and China. Most of all, she remembers the question that would never go away: “What are you?”

Those early experiences stayed with her as she embarked on a journey that brought her to Pacific Oaks College. And she graduated in 2013 with more than just a master’s degree. Chang’s in-depth research into the Asian diaspora and what it means to be multicultural in America culminated in a book that has launched a career for her as an activist, blogger, and public speaker.

“I credit Pacific Oaks for accelerating my journey,” says Chang, explaining that her master’s thesis was the start of her book, Raising Mixed Race: Multiracial Children in a Post-Racial World. “I knew I wanted a school that would give me room to breathe and think about how my personal experiences could shape my professional ambitions. I didn’t realize my training would move me in the direction of book writing, critique, and analysis.”

Chang received an M.A. in Human Development with an Early Childhood Education specialization and now serves Community Dialogues Program Manager at Families of Color Seattle. Based on her own experiences and academic training, she helps others address the complex questions that race and ethnicity pose in the U.S. today.

“When I had my son, Kazuo, I found myself facing questions I’d faced my whole life,” says Chang, explaining that her son is of Japanese, Taiwanese, and Caucasian American ancestry. “I could see what happened to me happening to him—he had those same questions. ‘Why do people stop and stare?’ ‘Why do people ask where my parents are from?’ ‘Why does it feel irritating after a while? And exhausting?’ ‘What does it mean to be mixed race, and what is race?’”

The dialogical approach to education in a Pacific Oaks classroom, she says, prepared her well to engage in these raw, sometimes emotional and complicated discussions with her own son and many others interested in understanding how they fit into the world around them.

She also wants to help multiracial Asian families sort through similar questions like that, and help to create the formation of a positive identity.

“I aim to provide others with the tools and vocabulary needed to more readily navigate the waters of racial identity,” she says. “By developing more of a questioning, critical awareness of how race impacts and shapes our lives, we can all contribute to making the world a more racially just place.

Sharon H. Chang
Pacific Oaks College

Paving your own path


The Power of Community means paving your own path.

Byron Flitsch has been telling stories all his life. Some are far-fetched tales of fiction and some are his own creatively reimagined takes on real-life experiences.

As a result, the Pacific Oaks College alumnus has won multiple creative writing awards and scholarships and has lived a life some would envy—penning travel articles for Forbes and doing freelance pieces on some of his favorite celebrities for MTV.

But Flitsch gained a different kind of public attention in the spring of 2016, winning a “Teacher of the Year” award in Pasadena, Calif., that he says represents the professional transformation he made as a result of his Pacific Oaks education.

“After a career in writing, it took a lot of soul searching for me to finally realize that I actually belonged in education,” says Flitsch, who earned a master’s degree in education from Pacific Oaks in 2015 and was immediately hired at Aveson Charter School, where he had student-taught during his degree program. “I knew I needed to find a place that was going to be nurturing, and I found that in Pacific Oaks. The ‘Teacher of the Year’ award just affirms that I made the right choice, and I’m so honored.”

Flitsch believes he landed his job so quickly after graduation in part because he learned things at Pacific Oaks that he could immediately implement in the classroom.

“Those practical hands-on lessons continue to be invaluable,” he says. “I couldn’t have asked for anything more from my education at Pacific Oaks.”

For example, Flitsch designed a seating configuration in his classroom to maximize student collaboration for homework one week, and then rehabbed his entire classroom at Aveson the next. He also learned to incorporate his personal passions—narrative writing, photography, blogging, and web design—into the lesson plans for his 4th and 5th graders.

The result has been life-changing.

“One of my students is dyslexic and hated writing. But after several months of focused work with him, he is sending me poems and personal essays written in his free time. There is nothing better than seeing a child’s eyes widen with understanding,” says Flitsch, who has also begun volunteering with a scholar mentorship program where he “adopts” two 7th grade students each month and takes them on cultural field trips in the area.

“One of my fears was that being a teacher meant I was giving up on my other passions,” he says. “But instead, this job has only highlighted and motived me to continue pressing on in my own personal dreams and endeavors.”

One of those dreams is writing a children’s book series, something he is starting to work on with the help of some of the literary world’s most esteemed editors—his students.

“I can’t tell you how many kids have lectured me for promising I’d get them another story from my children’s book, and when I miss a deadline, they don’t let me forget it!” Flitsch says fondly. “Kids are the best cheerleaders and fan club. I wouldn’t trade my life today for the world.”

Byron Flitsch
Pacific Oaks College

Transforming pain into strength


The Power of Community means transforming pain into strength.

Pacific Oaks College alumna Karina Murillo, M.A., worked as an early childhood educator for nearly eight years after graduating with her bachelor’s degree from Pacific Oaks. It was while working with children in the classroom that she first began to take notice of children’s lack of exposure to issues surrounding equity and diversity.

“As a minority, I realized this was an important topic to talk about—not just for adults, but for children as well,” Murillo says. “I noticed people aren’t really comfortable talking about class, race, and how those things affect our lives. I would even get backlash from people saying that children cannot talk about race.”

Then Pacific Oaks launched its Advocacy & Social Justice program. Murillo returned to school to broaden her own knowledge about racial discrimination, community marginalization, and biased curriculum, receiving a full scholarship to the program.

“I had never seen a degree program like this before,” Murillo says. “It was transformational. Beyond the intellectual component where you are expanding your knowledge, it pushes you to unveil truths about yourself. As a minority Latina who grew up in a one-parent household, I understood the repercussions of what it means to have a racialized experience. Hearing about similar experiences from classmates and reading about them in our textbooks made my lived experience feel valid for once.

“While it was somewhat traumatizing and painful to relive—through journaling, assignments, and interviews—it was also empowering to discover that there are so many different academics discussing these topics. It is empowering to know that the information is accessible to us. The next step is to then do something with it.”

Often, Murillo says, people may be unaware of their own racialized trauma, which can compound over time. She emphasizes the importance of exploring one’s self and focusing on personal healing first, something she was allowed to do in Pacific Oaks unique classroom environment. “If you want to be a fountain of change, you don’t want your water to be poisoned,” she says. “Healing your own trauma helps prepare you to address those faced by others.”

In the summer of 2019, Murillo was part of the first graduating class of the Advocacy & Social Justice program. She now plans to return to the field of education with more control over the narrative that children are exposed to. She is hoping to form a nonprofit community center where children can explore issues such as diversity and equity and where parents can learn to advocate for alternative forms of education that better represent the diversity of stories in the U.S.

“There is a need to educate parents as well and, really, our communities as a whole, about the importance of these issues and their history,” Murillo says. “Once people are more aware and can see how these issues may affect them, we can begin to transform the way our educational systems work. Understanding the power in our individual stories and making sure that we are always using it to uplift each other for equity and change is essential. But it doesn’t occur unless we all do it together as a form of collective liberation.”

Karina Murillo
Pacific Oaks College

Woman looking over her shoulder and smiling

Headshots_360x360_v2_Trena The Power of Community means finding a deeper way to learn.

When Trena Hudson, M.A., decided to pursue her master’s degree in human development, she didn’t know her success would be measured by far more than just a grade. As a straight-A student throughout elementary, high school, and as an undergrad at Oklahoma State University, she assumed she would settle into the program at Pacific Oaks College and mark off the tasks, make the grade, and come out on top. What she found, however, was something much deeper—requiring her to take a more active, engaged role in her education.

“I thought that as long as you get an A, you’re good. But at Pacific Oaks, I learned to trust the process. I started to think I may have never learned anything this deeply before,” Hudson says. “It really taught me a different way of learning. I learned how to be an active learner and how to impact others in a positive way, and I’ve carried that with me throughout my career.”

Hudson began working with young children at a daycare while in college as a way to work around her busy class schedule. She then grew her experience with both teaching in the classroom and an M.A. in human development. She continues to share what she has learned on her journey as a professor at San Jose City College and Pacific Oaks. She also works as the Centerbase Operations Director at Go Kids, Inc.—an agency that provides child-care and education training for teachers.

“I try to mimic the way that Pacific Oaks changed the traditional, cold classroom model for me.” Hudson says. “The cohort model told me, ‘You’re going to have to engage; you’re going to have to be present; you’re going to be responsible—not just for your learning but for the learning of your cohort members.’ It’s that level of responsibility and accountability that Pacific Oaks is known for, and what really helped me grow. It’s just a part of me now.”

As a manager and teacher of those who work in the classroom every day, Hudson knows the value of practicing what you preach. “Specifically in our field of early education, nobody is here to get rich. We have to meet people where they are and work with what they have. Whatever we’re expecting someone to do in the classroom, as leaders, we have to go there with them. It needs to be full circle.”

Trena Hudson
Pacific Oaks College

Woman with blonde hair giving a slight smile

jillleeThe Power of Community means learning more.

When you become a parent, everyone has an idea on the best way to raise your child. From conversations to books to podcasts to classes, opinions are everywhere. One of these parenting classes led alumna Jill Getto Lee, M.A., to Pacific Oaks College.

“When I got pregnant with my twin boys, everyone said, ‘You have to take a RIE class.’ So I did, and once I started learning, I didn’t want to stop,” she says. “I wanted to learn how to be the best mother to my sons, William and Jackson, that I could be, and that piqued my interest in child development, leading to my degree in human development.”

RIE stands for Resources for Infant Educarers and is often categorized as respectful parenting. The modality focuses on parenting from infancy with respect and empathy, believing that the child should be an active participant in everyday life from day one. One of the founders, Magda Gerber, was an infant development expert who applied Emmi Pickler’s core values of respect, trust, and acceptance to infants. Gerber also taught at Pacific Oaks for 20 years, which is what attracted Lee initially.

“When I started my RIE training, I learned more about the foundation and founders—like Gerber. She had taught at Pacific Oaks,” Lee says. “I wanted to further my education, and knowing that RIE was valued at Pacific Oaks encouraged me to pursue my master’s—even though it seemed impossible at first.”

With two infants at home, the idea of going back to school seemed crazy, but with different modalities and course offerings, she was able to begin weekend classes. Graduating a few years later, with a 4.0 grade point average, she knows that her life outside the classroom was just as impactful as learning on campus.

“RIE is based on respect, and I knew that I respected my sons, but what did that really look like? What does that mean for parenting?” Lee explored this topic in classes and in her own life, eventually starting her own consulting business specializing in twin and triplet development, seeking to “Changing the norm, one infant at a time.” She also teaches RIE classes.

“My education was basically a long domino effect. It started with one parenting class and continued to Pacific Oaks. I never realized what I would learn and how much I would love it. It completely changed my view of the world,” Lee says.

Part of that world view includes the importance of education from birth. She explains that the greatest amount of brain plasticity is from birth to age 2, so by empowering children at birth, you affect their hardwiring throughout life so that they can be their best possible selves.

Teaching development classes on her own now, Lee brings this empowerment to her lessons on infant care. “Society doesn’t treat infants as if they are competent—but they are, and it’s important we recognize that. They are physically developing miraculously without having to be told to do so,” Lee explains. “Once we start understanding that they have their own plan of development, we can allow children to unfold and develop into what they were meant to be, rather than putting our version on them.”

Jill Getto Lee
Pacific Oaks College

Ben Page

Ben PageThe Power of Community means learning more.

Imagine attending an elementary or secondary school where the students have as much of a say as the teachers. No more “because I said so,” or a mandatory syllabus, or needing permission to do something as simple as use the restroom.

Playing video games in school won’t send you to the principal’s office, and there’s no need to wait for a bell to ring to go to lunch. These are but a few things that make Ben Page’s The Open School—the first and only free democratic school in Orange, Calif.—stand out from many.

Ben Page, a Pacific Oaks graduate with an M.A. in Human Development, enjoyed his own public education but found the contemporary public school system to be rigid and authoritarian. During his time at Pacific Oaks, one of his most notable takeaways was the “ego-less teaching,” as he calls it, in which the professors not only listened to the students but also considered student knowledge as valuable an asset as that of the professor.

“I model a lot of my interactions with kids based on things that I learned at PO,” Page says. “I found that the way the instructors created an environment where the learner was in charge of their learning created a lot of fruitful development. This process became a methodology for working with kids at The Open School. I didn’t get a degree in teaching because I didn’t want to be a teacher; my degree in human development gave me the skills to interact with self-directed learners and generally to work with children without all of the adultism and the adult bias that generally comes into the educational sphere.”

Page now self-identifies as a “co-traveler” of The Open School students, though he did previously test out the waters of substitute teaching in traditional schools. But throughout his experience in the traditional school systems, he felt that respect for children was often lacking, a core value that he picked up at Pacific Oaks, especially under the mentorship of Dr. Olga Winbush.

“I remember those schools feeling like authoritarian states, and it made me realize how different public schools are today than when I attended them,” he says. “After that, I subbed in a progressive school for a couple years and I kept asking myself, ‘What’s so progressive about this?’ It seemed like progressive just meant that people were nicer but it was still authoritarian at heart.”

From that point, Page embarked on researching alternative ways to teach, focusing heavily on democratic schools and free democratic education, Krishnamurti’s educational philosophy, and the flagship model Sudbury Valley School. After visiting Sudbury for a week and seeing how the school was run, Page used that experience to help define the goals of The Open School.

In Page’s world of camaraderie between students and adult staff, he keeps his own Human Development learnings and skills in mind as a co-traveler.

“Something that I loved about Pacific Oaks was that my professors were not full of themselves,” Page says. “They didn’t have these giant egos that said ‘I’m an expert, and you’re all here to learn from me.’ Pacific Oaks was all about saying ‘We all have valuable life experience. Let’s share it with each other.’ And that’s how education should be! That’s why I valued Pacific Oaks, and it’s what I try to bring into my school every day.”

Ben Page
Pacific Oaks College

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