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Lucy Zillitto couldn’t be more proud, clutching a certificate from Monroe College that reads “President’s List” across it and contemplating her dream job in medical administration, a job she’s only just begun seeking.
Her mile-wide smile and contagious enthusiasm reflect a new outlook, one that eluded her three years ago when her advertising sales job was at risk because the news organization she worked for was constantly downsizing. Her husband warned her, it was time to find a new job.
But what could she do? Three decades earlier, she came to this country with her mother from El Salvador. She was six months shy of graduating hIgh school but couldn’t resist fulfilling her dream of coming to America.
She studied English and got a job in the toy department at Woolworth’s in Manhattan. In 1984 she married her husband, Nunzi.
Now all those years later, she faced a difficult question: What is a mother of two grown children to do without a high school diploma? Enter Southern Westchester BOCES.
“You sent us the brochure home,” she said of the Adult & Community Services program guide SWBOCES sends to thousands of homes. “I am so happy you did.”
Lucy enrolled in the High School Equivalency preparation program offered then in Mamaroneck and later at St. Gabriel’s School in New Rochelle. There she met teachers who cared, who shepherded her through a challenging program. They prepared her for tests, studied with her on weekends and supported her beyond what she ever might have expected.
They included Asuncion Orsini, the math tutor who Lucy to this day calls “Ms. Orsini — she calls all of her instructors Mr. or Ms. They’d meet at the New Rochelle Library on weekends.
“That lady never gave up on me,” she said of Orsini, who would one day help her prepare for the entrance exams to Monroe College, where she earned her Associate’s degree in Applied Science in Medical Administration this month.
“I did all this through her,” she said. “I owe her so much. I love her.”
Other teachers who made an impact include Arlene Novich, Matthew Westerman, Mark Mathis, Andres Botero and Steven Molletti, who gave her the pile of bound study guides she still treasures and credits for her success in completing the HSE program.
Lucy followed Botero to the SWBOCES program at White Plains’ Rochambeau School because he was such a strong math teacher.
Looking back now, Lucy says that the prospect of going back to school didn’t scare her. On the contrary, it made her feel stronger, empowered. It was a great example for her son Jeffrey and daughter Nicole.
“If mommy can do it, there’s no way that we cannot do it,” they told her.
She started with SWBOCES in 2014 and finished two years later.
“I am in love with SWBOCES and all my professors,” Lucy said. “I call them professors because when you go back to college you call them professors, not teachers.”
It wasn’t easy by any stretch.
When she struggled with medical coding, an advisor she turned to for help suggested she drop the course since it wasn’t required. She wouldn’t. “If I get a C, it will be my C,” she says. “I got through it.”
When her mother became ill, she felt family pressure to put school aside and care for her. But her mother didn’t want that for her any more than she would want that for her daughter.
“If I quit now I will never forgive myself,” she thought at the time. “So I stuck with it.”
She counsels others to follow her example and recommends SWBOCES to those facing similar challenges. She even gave her books to a friend who was inspired by her own success.
“Just go. I don’t care what age. Keep that out of your mind. It’s not the age,” Lucy says. “I said, when you want something and you work so hard at it, it doesn’t matter. It works.”
She has recommended SWBOCES to others in similar circumstances. She even gave her books to a friend who was inspired to follow her example.
Lucy admits she was a better student as an adult than she was when she was younger. When she saw she was doing well in her SWBOCES classes, it motivated her to achieve all she could. Her plan is to find a good job first, then turn her attention to earning her bachelor’s degree at Monroe College.
Now, with her eyes on the future, and her heart full of appreciation for the opportunity provided by SWOCES, Lucy is ready to embrace the next step.
“I can’t wait to get that job, my dream job,” she says.