When Students Return to Campus as Staff: A San Bernardino Valley College Story

When Alma Lopez was a student at San Bernardino Valley College, she received guidance and encouragement from English instructor Dolores Moreno and counselor Laura Gomez.

Today, she works alongside them both as an English instructor and Co-Coordinator of the Puente program with colleague Elizabeth Banuelos, who is also a former student and mentee of the program.

At 19 years old, Alma knew that she wanted to work with adult learners at the community college level, but she was far from certain about her future. After a “disastrous” year at another local college, Alma switched schools to attend Valley.

“I didn’t seek academic counseling while I was at Chaffey,” Lopez said. “I didn’t feel any kind of connection to the campus. I knew I had to change when I came to SBVC. I had to do things differently if I wanted to be successful.”

It was the right move for Lopez, who “loved” her time as an SBVC student.

“I was always a quiet person in high school, and I slowly came out of my shell by being involved in student government, MEChA, working in the library, successfully completing my year in Puente, studying abroad in Spain, and being selected Homecoming Princess — I still can’t believe that one! Because I wasn’t involved in high school, it was important to me to be involved with my college.”

Lopez had wanted to study history, then sociology, but being a member of Puente, a program that works with under-represented students to make them leaders and mentors, and working with English Professor Dolores Moreno, made Lopez switch her focus to literature when she transferred to UC Santa Cruz. There, she earned her bachelor’s in literature, then her master’s in English from UC Riverside, and was excited to return to SBVC as an adjunct instructor in English in 2007. She became a full-time instructor in 2012, and earned tenure in 2016.

“SBVC is my home,” Lopez said. “SBVC is also my mother’s home — she studied at SBVC from 1955 to 1957 before transferring to the University of Redlands to earn her BA and her lifelong teaching credential. That’s my favorite part — these are my stomping grounds.”

Lopez has also enjoyed forging new relationships with her former professors and counselors, who are now her colleagues, and jokes that she “can even call them by their first names now. I can’t express how much it means to still have Laura Gomez and Dolores Moreno as my support system. They helped me realize my potential and claim my education when I was a student. They continue to offer their support, encouragement, and consejos as I navigate through my career.”

She also credits Dr. Horace Alexander and Prof. Colleen Calderon with her success, as their “passion for their subjects helped plant the teaching seed in me, too.”

For students who, like her, knew what they wanted to do after college, Lopez has some suggestions: Get to know your professors, get involved with student associations in your chosen field, and attend academic conferences. Most of all, “Don’t give up on your dream,” she said.

Lopez appreciates that she was able to come full circle.

“That I get to teach at my alma mater and my mother’s alma mater is one of the largest blessings of my life,” she said. “SBVC has saved me several times. I must give back what I have been given — I must.”
 
Alma Lopez (left) and Elizabeth Banuelos (right), SBVC’s Puente Coordinators, are both alumni of the program.


Alma’s colleague in the Puente program, Elizabeth Banuelos, has a similar story.

Elizabeth attended four colleges in her educational journey, but it was her experience at San Bernardino Valley College that made her return as a counselor to inspire others.

A native of Tijuana, she had moved to San Bernardino from Perris, and went with her mother to enroll in college classes at SBVC. Once she arrived, she was blown away by the kindness she encountered.

“Everyone was so warm, so it created a positive impact to stay at SBVC,” Banuelos said. As a first-generation college student, she said it took a “strong village” of faculty, staff, and tutors to help with her “success not only in academics, but in life as well.”

While an SBVC student, Banuelos was part of MEChA and Puente, which work to promote and increase the number of under-represented students at colleges and universities. She credits Laura Gomez and Mary Beth Barrios — another Puente counselor — for being the mentors who prepared her to succeed in higher education, including the possibility of transferring to a UC.

After continuing to work with Puente’s outreach program, she witnessed firsthand the incredible impact community college counselors make in the lives of so many students. “I was able to connect to my own experience, and decided to enroll in a counseling program,” she said.

Banuelos earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Riverside, and went on to receive a master’s degree from the University of Redlands. When she completed her counseling internship at Chaffey College, she felt inclined to return to the positive environment at SBVC.

Banuelos applied for an adjunct counselor position at SBVC, and has held that position on campus for the past two years. She also serves as a co-coordinator for the Puente program. “My experience at SBVC was remarkable,” she said. “I found it to be the most positive higher education environment I have experienced in my life. Everyone was willing to go above and beyond to support me in many ways.”

She now loves welcoming students into her office so that she can give the same encouragement she received as a student years ago. Banuelos says the counselors are making students “feel that this is a place that is so involved in their success, making a positive impression of faculty and staff, and reassuring students that they can and will complete their goals at SBVC.”

She also finds enjoyment from working alongside the same faculty members that helped her as a student, including her former counselor Laura Gomez, who “has been so supportive of my professional journey,” Banuelos said. “Laura has been a very important person in counseling and she has been so helpful since day one. Even if she has appointments booked, she will make the time to give a smile and answer any questions or share advice.”

Banuelos wants students to always keep their eyes on the prize, to know that it is possible to finish their degrees and find their dream jobs.

“I enrolled for my first semester in college somewhere else and SBVC made a difference between giving up or staying motivated to achieve my goals,” she said. “Everyone makes a difference. Please, let’s make a positive impact!”