Automotive Student Turns Pain Into Passion

Toni overcame a series of personal obstacles to finish the Automotive Technician program at UEI College in Mesa

Toni Chacon’s world collapsed when her three boys were removed from her custody in the summer of 2021.

“My children are who make me who I am,” she said. “I am a mother. I am a teacher. If I don’t have any of that, I’m not me.”

Rather than letting the situation get the best of her, Toni decided as she fought her case with the state, that she would take time for herself. She had spent 15 years working in the medical field and was looking for a change. Without her children at home, she had time to return to school, get her high school diploma and start something new.

“To me, this was me time,” she said. “I wasn’t expecting to have my children taken from me, but I took this as the best learning experience that I can, as difficult a situation as I was put in. It was just the change I needed, a different outlook on life. I thought if I’m not going to have my children right now, I’m going to do something and I need to do it now and it needs to be something that’s going to help me change my life for the better,” she said.

She decided to enroll in the Automotive Technician program at UEI College’s Mesa campus.

‘IT’S LIKE LOOKING AT MUSIC’

Right away, Toni fell in love.

“You get to take things apart and learn how a vehicle runs,” she said. “What makes an engine turn. What sounds is it supposed to make? What sounds is it not supposed to make? We learned from old school classic cars to now what we have, electric cars. Knowing what’s right and what’s wrong and the mechanisms inside, to me, it’s like looking at music. It’s what drives the vehicle. It was awesome.”

Toni also learned to put trust in her instructor, Daniel Tellez. His knowledge of the industry allowed him to teach his students with flexibility and play to their strengths.

“That man has not led me wrong on anything I have brought to him,” she said. “It’s scary because I didn’t think there would be someone to have patience to teach me something that not everybody can learn so easily. It’s very enjoyable.”

“She was one of my best students,” Mr. Tellez said. “She had everything down. She’s smart. She is sharp. If I had students struggling, she was right there to jump in and show them how to do it. She was my right arm. She was my ambassador. If anyone had trouble, she was the first one there to tell them how to do it. Great student. Strong girl.”

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‘SHE KEPT GOING’

Throughout the program Toni pushed herself to remain on the honor roll but it was not easy with the distractions around her.

“I always pushed my children to have good grades,” she said. “I’ve always pushed my kids and told them if you want to be something, be it the best you can. If I have to instill that in my children, I also have to follow through with what I’m teaching them. I took that as my positive. I’m going to do it myself and if there’s anything I can do, I’m going to do it now and be as positive as I know I can be.”

On top of fighting for custody of her children, she went through a divorce and lost her father just a few months before graduation.

“I didn’t think after everything that I would still be able to make it,” she said. “In my head I thought you can’t keep going hurdle after hurdle after hurdle and succeed. Well guess what? Not only did I have my children taken away from me, I filed for divorce, I lost my father, I lost everyone in my family. Through this school I have grown to have so much more family and love from others that I never thought could be… I wanted to learn. I want to be self-sufficient and be able to teach my three boys any struggle can be overcome. I didn’t let any of this stop me.”

“With all the adversity she had, everything kicking her in the teeth, she kept going,” Mr. Tellez said. “She got her diploma. She finished her class. Her grades were awesome. I worried about her for a while because I thought she would say it was too much. She told me a few times the whole world is caving in on her. I just told her to finish it and start a new life.”

‘I AM VERY PROUD OF WHAT I DID’

On the day of graduation, Toni was stressed. She didn’t have a cap or gown and had to borrow one from the school but as she walked across that stage to accept her diploma, for high school and for college, her boys were in the audience with her aunt, cheering her on. She was able to get her boys back into her custody.

“It felt like my father was there with me and he would have been proud,” she said. “He always told me there’s nothing I can’t do. I know that as much as everything stood in front of me getting there… I am very proud of what I did.”

Now that she has finalized her custody case and her divorce, and successfully graduated, Toni looks forward to advancing her knowledge and mastering a male-dominated field.

“I’m looking forward to learning so much more about automotive and sharing my knowledge in this field that everyone has told me is a male field,” she said. “Any female in any field can do anything they want as long as they put their heart and mind to it, they can do it. I did it. I get to share that with my children… Don’t give up. There is no winning when you give up… Always know that it will come to an end. If it’s a negative, learn from it. Every day you should learn something new.”

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