Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
Ashley Solano admits, “I wasn’t the best student.”
She had difficulty reading and writing and “felt stupid and not teachable,” she said.
At age 16, and barely into her sophomore year of high school, she gave up, dropped out and began working minimum wage jobs at fast food restaurants.
“It was not stimulating work, it was just a way of getting a paycheck,” she said. “I was breathing but not really living, and I was trying to fit into a world that didn’t make sense to me. I had all these friends who were going to college and doing stuff with their lives, and I was just trying to survive.”
Two decades later, Solano, 36, has a number of degrees, continues to go to school, works for a bank as a bilingual customer representative and is on track to become a certified public accountant. She attributes her ability to elevate her literacy skills to an adult education program that helped her get her high school equivalency certification and showed her that she could do so much more.
Her future, she said, did not always look bright and filled with opportunities, particularly as a failing elementary and high school student.
“I didn’t get good grades, and I couldn’t comprehend anything that was going on. Maybe my focus wasn’t there,” she said.
Solano suggested that the most likely reason she made it into high school “was because they were just passing me from one grade to the next.”
“They thought it was because my first language was Spanish, so they put me in an ESL (English as a second language) program,” and she continued with ESL classes throughout elementary and middle school.
Dual language challenge
The third of six siblings, Solano spoke Spanish at home until she began kindergarten, when her parents, whose first language was Spanish, began speaking to her in English. For the most part, Solano said, English quickly became her primarily language. It was the language she used to communicate with her friends and the language that was taught in school.
She had trouble understanding the Spanish that was used in ESL programs to convey concepts in English, she said.
Pregnant at 18 and still living with her parents, Solano soon met a man who would become her husband. They moved in together and had three more children.
“He did not want me to work. He wanted me to stay at home to raise the children,” she said.
The income from his job was not enough to pay the bills. Even with Medicaid, food stamps, cash assistance and other aid, “our phone and electricity were constantly being disconnected, and we were constantly getting evicted and having to move,” she recalled.
As her marriage was ending, Solano went back to work, and because she didn’t want to be “the typical single mom living off of welfare,” she took two jobs – both at fast-food restaurants.
She separated from her husband in 2009, and their divorce was final in 2011.
In the meantime, Solano met her current partner, with whom she’s had two more children.
Finding a mentor
In 2016, she accompanied a friend to the Albuquerque Adult Learning Center for a presentation about earning a high school equivalency certificate. She immediately realized this was the path she had to pursue.
“I needed to change because, obviously, my life decisions up until that moment were not working out for me and it wasn’t getting any better,” she said. “It just seemed like I was digging a bigger hole and I was burying myself in it.”
As a student in public schools, “when I didn’t understand something, teachers would return to the beginning of the lesson and go over it in the same way again and again. Then they’d get frustrated and just move me on.”
That didn’t happen at the Albuquerque Adult Learning Center, where she was matched with a mentor who quickly figured out that Solano didn’t absorb material in the traditional way.
“I had an amazing teacher, and when she saw I wasn’t learning something, she’d say, ‘OK, let’s do it differently,’ and she’d try another method. She knew that different people learn in different ways, that some people are visual learners, some are aural learners and some verbal learners. She didn’t give up until she found out what worked for me.”
A successful resource
The Albuquerque Adult Learning Center, with several locations around the metro area, is a nonprofit, community-based organization that provides high school equivalency preparation, post-secondary transition assistance, and career preparation to anyone ages 16 and older. Classes are free to all students. The organization has an annual budget of about $300,000, of which two-thirds comes from the state Higher Education Department and federal pass-through funding, and the rest from grants.
Since getting her high school equivalency certification, Solano has earned associate of arts degrees in liberal arts, integrated studies and accounting, and is working to complete others in communications and business. She is also taking classes at the University of New Mexico, where she is working on a bachelor’s degree in business and hopes to earn a master’s degree in business.
Her goal is to eventually become a certified public accountant.
“Things are better for me professionally and personally, and I’m able to provide a better future for my children,” Solano said.
“If you would have told me 10 years ago that I would be where I’m at today, I wouldn’t have believed it. I’ve made it this far – I will make it all the way.”