More than a year ago, Toni Wingfield and her teenage daughter up and moved from the only hometown they knew. It seemed that crime and violence were increasing in their northern California neighborhood, and Toni wanted her daughter to grow up in a safer environment.
So, with the help of the Housing Choice Voucher Program Section 8 – a program of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development – the two of them ultimately found a house to rent in a safer neighborhood.
The catch? The house was about 250 miles away in Oildale, CA, just outside of Bakersfield. Also, the house was located in a predominantly white neighborhood whose residents, she was warned, were not accustomed to living around people like Toni and her daughter – people who are Black.
Toni made the move anyway.
And, while she has indeed encountered elements of ignorance and racism in her new neighborhood, the transition ultimately led to a number of positive changes in her life, including her enrollment in UEI College in Bakersfield, where she was a stand-out student, role model, and eventual graduate of the Medical Assistant Program.
As such, UEI named Toni as a 2021 Be the Change Scholarship winner, granting her a full-ride education at UEI College. Her submission essay was chosen above several others, within which she wrote about overcoming the prejudice she experienced during her recent transition.
“There is no escaping social injustice when it is a way of living for some,” Toni wrote. “So, I write this essay and share my story not to point fingers or blame anyone, but mainly to say, it’s not where you go, but it’s what you do when you get there. To anyone who feels defeated, walk with your head up and have tunnel vision when you don’t like what you see around you.”
Created in support and solidarity of the Black Lives Matter movement, UEI’s Be the Change Scholarship was established to give students a voice in the discussion of social justice, equality, human rights and community change.
“The scholarship committee and I were deeply moved by Toni’s story, and we are thrilled that she is using education as a catalyst in her life,” said Dr. Fardad Fateri, President and Chief Executive Officer. “While we cannot independently repair the deeply-rooted social and political injustices in our society, as educators we do have the power to spark change within our communities by providing educational opportunities at UEI College. In this realm, we are all making a difference for students like Toni.”
TALENT AND OPPORTUNITY ALIGN FOR UEI ENROLLMENT
Toni has always been a smart person. She got straight-A’s all through high school, and as an adult, she has never hesitated to take classes and learn new skills when the opportunity presented itself.
Even so, it was still somewhat surprising to her when she was able to grasp some complicated concepts while helping a friend with his medical homework.
“This friend of mine is going to school for radiology,” she said. “I was enjoying helping him do his homework, and I realized how easy the material was coming to me even though it was a struggle for him.”
This was Toni’s ah-ha moment – the instant when she started to realize she might have a real knack for healthcare. An opportunity to pursue such a career opened up not much later when she lost her job after contracting COVID.
“So, I experienced the loss of a job,” Toni said. “Instead of letting it take over me, I said, ‘What do I want to do? I’ve spent six months in Bakersfield, and what do I have to show for it?’ That’s when I saw a post about UEI College on Facebook.”
She scheduled an appointment to visit UEI College the next morning, and she quickly enrolled in the Medical Assistant program.
While taking classes, she said both her instructor, Carrie Young, and the Bakersfield Associate Director of Education, Cherrine Rodriguez-Ferguson, have both been in her corner, motivating her to do her best through the program.
“Ms. Wingfield was such a pleasure to have as a student,” Carrie said. “Not only did she make my job more enjoyable by seeing her eyes light up every time she successfully completed a new skill or when she would get the answers right when asking the entire class a question. She was my team leader who I could always depend on her to help her classmates when they needed it, to help me when I needed it and to help the other students and staff on campus. Toni absolutely has a bright future in her medical career.”
Toni got straight-A’s in all her classes. And last spring, she accepted a work study position at the school and had started volunteering to help new students get acclimated during orientation.
“When I first moved down here, I didn’t feel like I belonged, but now I feel like I have a place here,” Toni said. “I can now call this home … or at least a second home.”
TIME TO START LIVING, NOT JUST SURVIVING
When Toni first heard about the Be the Change Scholarship, she saw another opportunity for herself. It wasn’t just a chance to earn money for college; it was also a chance express herself, her frustrations, and to reflect and celebrate the accomplishments she’s made since her move.
“I thought I was at a point in life where I needed to tell my story, and this gave me that opportunity,” Toni said, referring to the struggles she had and the roadblocks she encountered trying to make a better life for herself and her daughter.
When it was announced that Toni was being named UEI College’s Be the Change winner, the Bakersfield campus set up a ruse to surprise her with the honor. Telling her she was a finalist for the award, they asked her to read her essay aloud for her classmates before ultimately revealing that she’d won the scholarship.
“I cried, and the whole school cried with me,” Toni said. “It makes you have a new outlook on life to see little ol’ me in Oildale, and I’m shining. Just me, one person among all these people who are invisible to me, and I’m a little icon on a map and I’m finally lighting up.”
Toni said that having tuition 100 percent paid for actually motivates her to want to continue her education following her UEI College graduation. Now, instead of going right to work to pay off school, she wants to go straight to nursing school with a goal of becoming a Registered Nurse (RN).
“I was going to do it little by little, but now it makes no sense to not go on and broaden my horizons,” she said. “I’m at the age where I feel like I deserve to be at the top. I finally feel like at the age of 38, I’m living. I’m actually living, not just surviving. It’s a humbling experience.”