Joanna Chavez De Leon's lifelong love of learning started in a first grade classroom in California as a non English speaking student.
“At the end of every day, my first grade teacher, Mrs. Breeze, would read Clifford the Big Red Dog. I didn’t understand a word of it but I loved the pictures; it was a time of comfort for me. Those books were such a huge part of my life as a child and I read them with my son's Manny and Mauri when they were little. Ultimately, I hope to read them to my grandchildren!”
Chavez DeLeon punctuates even the most difficult moments of growing up as an ESL student with exclamation and laughter. “I remember sitting in the classroom from kindergarten to third grade and not understanding a word of what was being taught. In first grade I didn’t know how to ask to use the bathroom. I didn’t have the words to tell my teacher that I needed to go, so I just went while sitting there in my little yellow dress. And all day long I was the stinky pee kid!”
Joanna’s enthusiasm and willingness to share her story have endeared her to many students throughout her career journey in Adult Education and English as a Second Language courses. While she ultimately exited out of her California school’s ESL program in the sixth grade and went on to graduate high school after moving to Iowa at 15, Joanna never forgot how difficult the journey was as a non English speaker. And at age 19, she faced another educational challenge when she became pregnant during her freshman year of college.
Joanna withdrew from classes that year and her son Manny was born on January 3rd, 2000.
Immediately after his birth, she attempted to return to college courses while working full time at Tyson Foods. “I worked my shift from 4:00-3:00pm and then went to classes. I was falling asleep all of the time, it just didn’t work.”
Throughout it all, Chavez DeLeon never lost sight of her educational goals. Manny was always her motivation to keep going. “In the back of my head, I always knew there would be that point in our lives when he became a senior in high school. How would I be able to say, ‘You need to go to college,’ if I never completed it myself.”
Joanna pushed forward yet again, working with the plant manager to secure the flexibility to attend classes part time during her shifts and return to work after. She completed two years at Iowa Central Community College before a break in courses paused her progress.
In 2009, Joanna heard about the distance learning option at William Penn University and knew it was the opportunity she had been waiting for to finish her bachelor’s degree. Manny was nine years old at the time. “I had to make sacrifices throughout my journey, and the biggest of those sacrifices was time away from my son. My parents watched Manny while I took classes. I was an instructional assistant for the Storm Lake school district at this time, working with the ESL program, and I absolutely loved it. However, the pay was not enough to support us so I worked full time for the school district and waitressed on the weekends to supplement our income. It wasn’t easy.”
Joanna was set to graduate on May 10, 2014, finally receiving the Bachelor’s Degree she had worked so long and hard for.
She had two tassels on her graduation cap, one dedicated to her father for all of his love and support, for being a father figure for Manny while he was growing up. The other, dedicated to M