Dental Assistant Student Finds Second Chance in Phoenix

College offers students a chance to dream of a future full of opportunity but for Joanna Herrera, it also offered the chance to repair broken relationships with her daughters and create distance between herself and an addiction that has plagued her for years.

Joanna is not the kind of person to make excuses for the mistakes of her past. She was sucked into an addiction to substances at a young age and she admits that it ruled her life for far too long.

Even when she became a mother as a teenager, Joanna was not able to find a way out. She spent years in and out of jail, losing custody of her six children along the way.

“I had my youngest daughter while in prison and that whole battle was just devastating,” she said. “It was devastating to have a child in prison and not have a chance to fight and have no say at all. Being in prison, I was going to lose custody of another child again. There was no fight. It was a dead end.”

In 2019, Joanna was out of prison and received communication from her older children.

“They were adopted by a family member, and they reached out to me as they became teenagers. They wanted to be a part of my life and wanted me to be in their life,” she said. “Once they reached out and told me they wanted their mom in their life, that was all I wanted. That’s what hit home. I can’t continue being like this and showing my girls I’m a drug-addicted person, not willing to change my life. Now that they are reaching out to be a part of my life, that was all I wanted.”

Joanna made a vow to herself that she was going to change her life. If she was going to be in her children’s lives, she had to be different than she had been in the past. Joanna decided to prove it to them by getting her education. With support from her six daughters and her husband Rikki, she enrolled in the Dental Assisting Program at UEI College’s Phoenix campus.

“The next thing I know, she sends me a picture of her getting into UEI,” said Evelina Martinez, Joanna’s daughter. “It made me feel like wow, she is actually doing what she said she was going to do. Even though it took her a while to get started with the process, it made me happy to see she was actually going to make her life better.”

While Joanna was excited about starting her new life, it didn’t come easily.

“When she got in the school, she was still in her healing phase and trying to leave her past behind,” said Evelina. “You could tell she was still worn down by the addiction she had and everything but as time went on and she was in her dental assistant program she was getting happier and happier. She was sending me messages and videos about what she was doing in class and calling me during her breaks. It made me really proud to see my mom change from what she used to be before to something completely different. It took some getting used to. It was a big change.”

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Joanna made it through her first two classes and managed to make it on the honor roll, but she was struggling to keep up her energy.

“Once I got sober, I was losing a lot of weight. I was always tired. My body was drained,” she said. “I knew it wasn’t just the drugs. I knew it was something worse than that… I went to get a blood test for pregnancy, and it came out negative, but my thyroid levels and other levels were extremely high. They told me something was not right.”

Through a series of tests and surgeries, doctors confirmed that the problem was cancer, and it was spreading.

“It was devastating,” she said. “I felt like evil was attacking me and was not going to allow me to move forward with my life. Being in that moment and not knowing how extreme the cancer was mentally and emotionally overwhelming. Then when I got the results from the biopsy, it wasn’t even for sure but it looked like stage 3, going to stage 4. You know that’s serious. Once I heard that, my mentality was ‘I’m going to die. I’m not going to be able to change my life. I’m going to die and not be able to show my kids that I can change my life. What if I don’t make it through this?’”

Joanna took a month off of her program to go through surgery and treatments. While she was out of school, her daughter Evelina decided to enroll.

“I had a lot of relatives getting diagnosed with a lot of medical problems. It just motivated me to try to be there for them when they actually need me most,” Evelina said. “I just wanted to take care of them and wanted to make a difference in the medical field.”

When Joanna came back to school, she was not in the same program as her daughter, but they shared the same schedule and were able to see each other often.

“Those were the days I looked forward to because I could see my oldest daughter and get to hang out with her,” Joanna said. “That kept me motivated. They saw me trying to change myself and they were my biggest supporters. Everything I’ve done and everything they went through as children, that’s a lot of resentment to hold onto as a child. To be able to overcome that and for them to see that I’m not that person is the best feeling ever. I’m sure they have those resentments still, but the fact that they gave me that chance to be a part of their life and show them that I am a different person and I’m doing it to better myself and be a role model for them is what keeps me going.”

“It was an emotional experience having us working together and pushing through together with everything that has happened in the past,” Evelina said. “It was a growing experience for both of us. We had each other’s backs and supporting each other.”

Through all her struggles, Joanna was able to graduate from her program. She credits her instructor with taking the time to give her one-on-one instruction to make up for time lost due to illness.

“JoAnna Herrera is always pushing to exceed all past roadblocks,” said Lanisa Hudson, Joanna’s instructor. “I’m so proud of her.” 

Unfortunately, Joanna’s health still plagues her and so she has decided not to pursue a position as a dental assistant just yet. Evelina is still continuing her program. Both are excited about the possibility of a new career but they are equally excited about their new relationship.

“It took a lot of getting used to letting her back into my life,” Evelina said. “After not having a lot of contact with her because of everything in the past, our relationship now is probably better than ever. I didn’t have my mom at that time but now that I have her it’s like wow. This is the lady who gave birth to me and she gets to be there for me now when I need her. It’s an awesome mother-daughter relationship but also a best friend I can go to for anything.”

“I can’t even explain the feeling,” Joanna said. “She calls me and sends me videos of what she is doing. Being able to be a part of it and knowing I’m able to do that now, our relationship is so amazing. Now that I am where I am today, I’m not afraid to share my testimony freely I’m not ashamed of where I’ve been what I’ve been through, and who I’ve become. I know my story will help others who are there and feel like they have no hope. I know somebody will take a piece of what I’ve said and will hold onto that hope for themselves… UEI definitely made that clear that people like me do have a second chance and there are people willing to give us that.”

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