From high school dropout to 4.0 GPA

There was a time the 17-year-old Jessica Zambrano didn't see a high school gradation in her future; her education had been derailed by a difficult home life that led to childhood drug abuse. But that was before she joined the inaugural session of the Gateway to College program at Santa Rosa Junior College.

Now, the Petaluma resident is slated to walk with the first graduating class in the spring of 2015, a milestone that she hopes will set an example for her younger siblings.

The newly opened program specifically targets high school dropouts or those who fell so far behind in their education, they need additional help to catch up. For Zambrano, it meant a second chance. After her parents divorced when she was 3, her mother was often hospitalized with chronic illness, which left her medicated to the point that she couldn't take care of her four children. As the eldest child, Zambrano assumed the responsibility of making sure her three siblings had their basic needs met, a task that weighed heavily on the young girl.

By fifth-grade, she was regularly smoking marijuana and had experimented with alcohol. "Drugs were my only escape," she says, adding that by middle school she had sunk into a deep depression and was battling an eating disorder.

"I had to escape from the responsibility I felt," she says. "It started with weed and escalated to cocaine and as far as methamphetamine."

By freshmen year of high school, drugs were a part of her daily life. While she still managed to take care of her siblings, she had all but given up on her own education. School, for her, was a place that judged her and told her she wasn't enough. She continued to go, mostly just to see her friends.

"I hit bottom when I got alcohol poisoning and had to go to the hospital and have my stomach pumped," she remembers. She was 15 years old.

She then noticed a disturbing trend — her younger brother was having the same behavioral problems that marred her scholastic life. She wanted to show him a better path.

"It clicked that I had people following me, I had to set an example," she says.

At 16, with her mother again hospitalized, Zambrano quit school to find work so she could take financial care of her three siblings, whom she regularly calls "my kids." She also quit drugs and the friends who negatively influenced her. One job at a gym wasn't enough, so she picked up two more, working seven days a week to make ends meet.

After losing their home, the siblings moved into a shelter while their mother was in the hospital in December. Zambrano reached out to a staff member for help, but the shelter could only call Child Protective Services, which took all four kids into the state's custody. Zambrano and her oldest brother were eventually placed with their biological father, but the two younger children remain in foster care. However grim those days were without her younger sister and brother, there was a silver lining. She finally was freed from the responsibility of caring for her siblings full-time.

"I saw the opportunity I needed to be something and do something with my life," she said.

Zambrano joined Gateway to College in January for the spring semester, her stomach aflutter with nerves after a year without setting foot inside a classroom. But she was fiercely determined, and found the support she needed.

"It's a school where you're not judged for getting bad grades or doing drugs," says Zambrano. "They don't judge your past, they focus on your future."

For the first time in years, Zambrano feels her future is bright. She scored a 4.0 grade point average her first semester, and achieved perfect attendance. She was voted by her peers as the first president of the Gateway to College Club. She shared her story at the junior college's Building Community Breakfast at the Petaluma campus on June 5, earning a standing ovation from hundreds in the crowd.

After finishing her degree next spring, she plans to get an associate degree at the college before going to a four-year university to pursue a degree in psychology. Ultimately, she hopes to work with teens who strayed down the wrong path, just like she did.

"You should always have a second chance," she says. "A lot of us make mistakes when we're young. But we all deserve a second chance."