Puente’s first GED grads accomplish the near-impossible

To the people who know them, Eufemia Castro and Liliana Villalobos are heroes. Their names are known to every adult on the South Coast who aspires to a high school degree, but must also contend with the demands of work and family.

Eufemia Castro and Liliana Villalobos with their tutors, Monica Amezcua, Suzanne Abel and Mariela Lopez
Eufemia Castro and Liliana Villalobos with their tutors, Monica Amezcua, Suzanne Abel and Mariela Lopez

Castro, 31, and Villalobos, 30, learned English, worked full-time, and (in Castro’s case) raised two young children – and all while earning their GEDs together. It took them more than three years, but the two friends passed their final test this summer.

In so doing, they became the first two graduates of Puente’s GED program. Inspired by their example, six other adults have followed them into the program.

How did they do it? The two friends try to answer the question during an interview at the Half Moon Bay Library. They sit and think for several moments: two confident, accomplished women with big smiles.

“It was very hard,” says Castro.

That’s putting it mildly. The women received four hours of tutoring each week by Puente staff and volunteers, along with at least six hours of homework – excluding extra study time before tests. Castro and her husband work full-time, and she had to prevail on her sister-in-law to watch her kids as much as possible since she can’t afford a babysitter. Villalobos, who lives in Montara, had to figure out a way to get down to Puente twice a week after a long day spent working and preparing supper for her husband.

Both women received the unyielding support of Puente GED tutors like Academic Director Suzanne Abel and Program Assistants Monica Amezcua and Mariela Lopez, who guided them through long GED workbooks on science, math, reading, writing and social studies. They also had the strong support of their husbands, which is not always a given in many families, according to Castro.

“Everyone who gets married forgets about studying. In our culture, you will have to be sacrificed for your husband and your kids,” she says - adding that she knows other women who don’t have the support of their husbands to study, even though they would like to.

“I’m very proud she decided to study because I know education is the key,” says Ismael Villalobos, Liliana’s husband. “She’s very intelligent.”

Liliana, who is stylish and energetic, grins back at him. “He said, ‘you have to do it, you have to study. Don’t worry about cleaning the house."

Next up: a career  

Today, both women are enrolled in community college. Although they both clean rooms for a living, they are working toward becoming professionals someday and getting paid to do what they love: Castro’s dream is nursing, with a specialty in geriatric care. Villalobos has wanted to be a preschool teacher since she was 6.

Yet neither woman contemplated getting a high school degree and going to college, let alone having a career, when they first moved to California. Growing up in Mexico, Castro’s father could only afford to send her to school until the sixth grade. Villalobos had a single mother and she dropped out of school in grade 10.

Castro, who is serious and well spoken, always loved schoolwork. In 2009 she was enrolled in ESL at College of San Mateo with the basic goal of improving her English.

“But when I started going to the college I realized there were many doors open to me. All I needed was to want to do it,” she says. Her world realigned around a new goal: to seek her GED and become a nurse.

Castro reached out to Puente and asked whether anyone would be willing to tutor her for the GED. She recruited Villalobos to join her; the two were cleaning rooms together at Costanoa.

Neither of them had any idea how long it would take. The math section alone took more than a year. At times it felt torturous.

“We had to learn everything about math,” says Castro, shaking her head.

“Especially algebra! Oh my god! I couldn’t stop calling Eufemia to help me,” laughs Villalobos.

In the end, they passed the math test on their first attempt – just like every other test they took.

And finally, one beautiful day this July, they received their certificates and stopped by the Puente office with flowers to thank everyone and celebrate together. There was a lot of shrieking and hugging that day.

Their sheer determination and eventual success has inspired six other people to earn their GEDs through Puente, according to Kassi Talbot, Puente’s Learning Center Associate. There are enough students now that Puente plans to set up a weekly tutoring session for everyone.

“These other students started because they saw their example. And it’s only going to get bigger,” says Talbot.

Villalobos has some good advice for the newcomers: stay determined.

“I learned that easy things come easy. But when you really want to do something hard, you have to go and do it,” she says.

Puente needs several GED tutors for our upcoming classes. For details, please contact Kassi Talbot at (650) 879-1691 x 138 or ktalbot@mypuente.org.