Graduate Turns Tragedy Into Purpose at UEI College in Sacramento

Shalenna Brewer dental assistant UEI College Sacramento

In the 16 years Shalenna Brewer worked at her previous job, she felt invisible. She didn’t feel like she had a voice or was considered valuable by those above her, and when she was acknowledged, she often felt talked down to.

So for years, Shalenna kicked around the idea of going back to school for a new career – one in the field of dentistry.

Before she could make the move, however, tragedy struck her family. In 2018, her mother fell victim to random gun violence.

“After the murder of my mother, I became more aggressive in wanting to further my career,” Shalenna said. “I would always talk about it, but I would never take the actions to move forward and actually do it.”

Shalenna said she followed the advice of a couple of family members and enrolled in the Dental Assistant program at UEI College in Sacramento. And, despite another unexpected tragedy that nearly led her to leave the program – her little sister died just months after her mom was killed – Shalenna graduated from the program and is now enjoying a new, full-time career as a dental assistant.

Motivated by Tragedy

Shalenna always loved going to see the dentist is a child. Her dentist was so nice, she recalled, always giving her lollipops at the end of the visits.

This impression stuck with her years later as she trudged through a previous job that made her feel underappreciated. Shalenna said she knew she was destined for better things, but the thought of circling back and restarting a new career in her mid-to-late-30s felt overwhelming.

Plus, as a mother of four, how would she ever find the time to go back to school while still putting food on the table and keeping a roof over her family’s head?

The death of her mother, however, changed her thinking.

“My mother’s murder was an eye-opener for me, and a big heartbreak,” she said. “In a blink of an eye, your life can end for no reason. So, I wanted to do it before it was too late.”

Shalenna learned UEI College in Sacramento offered the flexibility she needed to be both a student and a single mom. Once enrolled in the Dental Assistant program, she also quickly learned the staff and her instructors – Laci Salinas, Celina Fimbres and Christine Abisia — were supportive of her both as a student and as a person.

This became especially true when, while enrolled in the program, Shalenna learned of the death of her younger sister – this less than a year after her mother’s death.

“The instructors were all kind and helpful,” Shalenna said. “They helped me through a lot of challenging times. Laci Salinas … she actually guided me through. She’s a big inspirational person who I really admired.”

“Shalenna was an amazing student, always eager to come to class, to learn and get away from her everyday life,” Laci said. “She never let her very complicated, outside influences get to her while attending class, working a full-time job and being a single mother of three. In the long run, she overcame it all and is a very strong person, mother, student and woman.”

“After she finished her externship, she came into class and was so happy and proud of herself, she wanted to motivate and to tell the current students to keep with it and finish because the struggles are worth it,” Christine said. “After everything that she has been through, it is amazing to see her confidence and smiles.”

“She told me many times that she wanted do something to better her own life, her children’s lives, and to do something that would have made her mother proud,” Laci added. “Shalenna was an absolute joy and positive role model and motivating student throughout her time here at UEI. We are very proud of her, and we are sure she will go on to do great things.”

Keeping Her Eye on the Prize

Shalenna said that when things got tough emotionally as well as academically, her children as well as her father would help keep her focused. They would remind her that her mother and her sister both wanted her to succeed, and that education held the ticket for her to get to where she wanted to go in life.

“[School] took me from the negative and put me in the positive mindset,” she said. “Even somedays, when I was still down and I felt it kicking in again – the anxiety and the depression – I thought, ‘What would God do?’ I continued to pray that [my mom and sister] would be by my side and walk me through. I didn’t want to let them down.”

Her instructor, Laci Salinas, also stepped up to keep Shalenna motivated during her low points.

“Toward the end, I was in my last mod and I became depressed,” Shalenna said. “It all hit me at once. But, I talked to Ms. Laci. She told me I came this far and I’m almost done. Don’t give up!”

The motivation and support seemed to work. Before she even completed her classes at UEI, Shalenna began to pursue a position within her new dentistry career. She was quickly hired by a local clinic at which she served her externship hours before becoming a full-time dental assistant on staff.

So far, Shalenna said the new position is just what she wanted in a new career.

“I do chairside assisting, sterilization, X-rays, impressions, setups for crowns and fillings, perio charting … I actually really like it,” she said. “I feel a lot of happiness here, which is something I didn’t have in my last career.”

“All of us at UEI are very proud of Shalenna for overcoming the many challenges she faced,” said Belinda Alcid, Executive Director at UEI College Sacramento. “Congratulations! We know that she has the strength to thrive as a new Dental Assistant.”

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