Jaime Avila dropped out of school in the 10th grade — not because of discipline issues, failing grades, or lack of ambition. He did it for his family.
“Being Hispanic here at the time was really difficult for my parents; they didn’t speak very good English,” he says. “There were a lot of furniture companies at the time and I was hearing about people making good money…I saw that my dad was struggling at work, putting all those hours in, so I just decided to go ahead and jump to it.”
Foregoing high school and his goal of following in a cousin’s footsteps to the military, Jaime went to work building furniture, sacrificing his dreams of the future to the demands of the present. A few years later, he decided to enroll in Northeast Mississippi Community College’s Adult Education program to earn a high-school-equivalency diploma. His full-time job was a major obstacle. “I would get off really late, and it was always a struggle to get off work and run up here [to the classroom],” he says. “It was very difficult asking permission to get off work early. Then work slowed down and I couldn’t really ask for the time off because they really needed people to be there. That was always the big challenge.”
This led to a piecemeal approach; he came to class when he could. It took a few years, but he never gave up. He got his diploma, and it was worth all the trouble. “It helped me look at life differently,” he says. “There is a lot more opportunity for better jobs. Before I finished the HiSET [exam] and got my diploma, I really felt like I was stuck. Now I hear about all these opportunities. And better pay. A lot better pay. That’s what’s really motivated me.”
Fresh off his success in earning his diploma, Jaime set his sights higher. Working with Northeast’s adult-ed advising staff, he decided to pursue a career as an electrician. “I’ve done a couple of construction jobs in the past, and it always caught my attention, how everything works,” he says. “I just find it amazing how a simple wire lights up a whole building.”
He began his college career during the summer, taking College Algebra and English Composition I. Tina Gambill was his English Comp instructor. “Jaime attended English Composition I under my instruction during June and July,” she says. “Even though this was a summer course, he was present for every class meeting, which I believe says so much about his dedication and perseverance. I know there were a few times when he felt discouraged for various reasons, but he was a hard worker and never complained. I was so proud to see him succeed in this course, and I am sure his attitude will lead to more successes.”
A native-born Californian who has spoken English all his life, Jaime felt confident going into English Comp. Algebra was a different story.
“I kind of restricted myself before I started [the algebra class], because I thought, ‘This is going to be so difficult.’ That was my biggest challenge throughout high school — math,” he says. “But once I got to it, [I realized that] if you really want it, you will be able to do it. The teacher was awesome, I understood everything she was talking about, and I was really surprised with my final grade. If you really pay attention and do the work, there is no challenge.” (Neuroscience supports this notion; attention is vital for adults to trigger the brain changes necessary for learning.) His algebra instructor, Bonnie Wanner, concurs that he earned his grade by learning from the past. “He knew that the mistakes he had made in his education in the past were not going to hinder him this time,” she says. “He was dedicated to succeeding this time.”
“I would love,” she says, “to have an entire classroom of Jaimes.”
But that was summer. The time commitment for his classes amounted to only a couple of hours a day, allowing him to continue working full-time. Then came the fall semester, and a full schedule, and the return of Jaime’s tug-of-war between work and school, present needs, and future ambition. This time, with the help of his own family, the future won out.
He talked to his employer about reducing his hours to allow him to attend classes, but “they couldn’t work with my schedule,” he says. “I got home and talked to my wife, and I said, ‘Either I do this now and get better, or I get stuck in the same situation where I have always been.’ And she said, ‘It’s going to be a struggle, but we can make it.’”
Jaime is a college freshman now with a full class load — studying hard, staying focused, and, as always, taking care of his family. But now in a different way. “It [attending college] is a good example for my [10-year-old] son because he’s starting to notice everything. I tell him how awesome college is, and he’s actually getting more focused. When I get home, I talk to him, and he asks, ‘How was school today? What did you do?’ He’s excited about going to school.”
As a younger man, Jaime sacrificed his dream to take care of his family: first his parents, then his wife and children. Now, with their support, he is pursuing a different dream, and perhaps an even better one — electricians, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, earn $56,900 a year on average, with a job outlook that is much higher than the average for all positions.
His advice for anyone considering doing what he has done? “It’s never too late. If you want to do it, now is the time to do it. You can go to your job every day and do what you have to do, or you can do something that you love and get paid better.”