At the age of 16, Janet Morales gave birth to the first of her four children. From that point forward, she lived her life in survival mode.
Like so many teen moms before her, she quit school to better support her new family, fully intent on going back and getting her GED as soon as possible. But, a growing family coupled with an abusive relationship not only derailed these plans; she became anxious and depressed, losing the self-confidence needed to pursue a better life.
And, at any given time, she was juggling two or three jobs in order to make ends meet as a single mom.
“It was me not having the confidence in my own self to say I can do this. I will do this,” Janet said. “I was listening to others and not listening to myself. I was tired … losing focus. I tried multiple times to get my GED, but being able to pay my bills and put food on the table for my kids took most of my time.”
One of her jobs, which she held for 17 years, was as a preschool teacher at a local child care center. When the preschool closed last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Janet mourned the loss of income but eventually realized a door had opened.
Thanks to the urging of a friend, Janet reached out to Florida Career College (FCC) in Lauderdale Lakes to see if it might be the right time to finally pursue both her high school diploma as well as a career as a dental assistant.
Turns out, it was an ideal time to follow these dreams. Janet graduated from the Dental Assistant Program at FCC Lauderdale Lakes in February 2021, and she’s currently employed full-time at a pediatric dental practice.
More importantly, Janet says, she’s setting a positive example for her children, who have supported and even followed in her pursuit of higher education and career training.
“I finally made the decision to get up and go to school,” Janet said. “I said, you know, that’s it — I’m going to go. I made the decision, and it was the best decision of my life.
Perseverance During the Pandemic
Janet is careful not to speak of the current pandemic in a tone that could be mistaken for reverence. She knows how awful it’s been in the lives of so many across the country and the world.
But, when she looks at how much her life has improved over the last year — how much stronger, happier and more comfortable she is right now — it’s the pandemic that helped set this journey in motion.
“I know the pandemic’s been hard on a lot of people, but I look at it as a little blessing for myself,” she said. “When the preschool closed, I was able to get out, push myself and focus. It gave me a chance to focus on myself and on my family.”
When Janet was a younger adult, she once tried to earn her GED but the cards seemed stacked against her. Being a mom, working multiple jobs, and living in an abusive relationship — one would finally end when the abuse landed her in the hospital — meant she had virtually no support system to help her succeed.
This time was different, however. She not only had the time, but she also had the support of her children — two daughters and two sons — who have grown into young adults.
Janet said her admissions advisor, Richard, was always there for her to listen, provide advice and offer help. She also had the support of instructors, advisors and faculty at FCC’s Lauderdale Lakes campus.
“Shatoya Harp … she was my instructor throughout the whole course, and she was amazing,” Janet said. “Every time I needed to text her and ask her a question, she was OK with that. She was my No. 1 supporter helping me out through this whole thing.”
“Having Janet as a student was such an honor to me. She was one of the top students in my class, a straight A student. I’ve watched her grow in the past year. She was an amazing student and there is no doubt in my mind that she’s going to be an excellent Dental Assistant,” Shatoya said.
Education Becomes a Family Affair
Janet’s experience at FCC was such a positive one that the pursuit of education became a family affair. Her oldest daughter, 19-year-old Lilliam Segarra, signed up for classes at FCC, too, and she’s currently completing her externship in the Medical Assistant program.
“She’s on the same campus (Lauderdale Lakes) as me, and she’s on her way to finishing,” Janet said. “I hope she gets hired, as well. She’s been working so hard.”
One of Janet’s greatest driving forces throughout her time at FCC, however, has been her youngest daughter. Like her mother, this daughter also became a teen mom, making Janet a grandmother.
“I did this for all my kids, but the main one was my youngest daughter,” Janet said. “I wanted to set an example for her so she could say, ‘My mom was a teen mom, she went to college, she got her diploma, and she overcame obstacles in order to do that.’ She’s more or less been my greatest motivation.”
After finishing her coursework, Janet earned an externship at Kids Dental Place, a pediatric dental office in Plantation, FL. Upon completion of her externship, Kids Dental Place offered her a full-time position at the clinic.
“I love it there,” Janet said. “That’s the office I wanted to work at because of all my experience working with children. I work with an amazing group of ladies.”
Now at age 39, Janet has been able to turn the corner both personally and professionally, adding distance from a past that she feared would hold her back for the rest of her life. She said she’s looking toward the future with a “sky’s the limit” attitude. Her next goal: to become a dental hygienist.