By Matt Watson
It’s a Thursday at Thomas Jefferson High School in Denver, and a student is aimlessly wandering the hallways instead of sitting in class.
A woman proclaims, “You need to be in class. Do you want to wait until you get to my age to go to class? Take the opportunity now, and embrace it.”
The voice belongs to Delores Leslie, who at age 59 was taking her final classes as a student as well. She graduated with an individualized degree titled “Educational Studies for Special Populations” from Metropolitan State University of Denver on Friday.
Leslie has worked as a paraprofessional in Denver Public Schools since Oct. 9, 2002, a date she recalls like it was last week. She started out as support for a middle-school truancy program, gathering schoolwork for the students who are pulled off the streets and brought to school by a truancy officer. Now, Leslie works with special-needs high-schoolers, which she says isn’t always easy but is worth it in the end.
“It has its ups and down, but it’s rewarding when you see the students you work with graduate and walk across the stage,” Leslie says.
Now, Leslie’s peers and mentors say the same thing about her, as her own academic journey has reached its apex with a college degree. It’s a journey that began in her home country of Trinidad and Tobago, where she grew up and completed high school. She postponed secondary education to stay home and care of her ill stepmother until she passed away.
She relocated to Brooklyn, New York, in the 1980s and enrolled in community college before dropping out when she got pregnant and needed to take care of her mother. Raising her son Randy put her education on the back burner for some time, but he was also the reason she decided to go back to school in her 50s. She enrolled in classes when he was a senior in high school to be a role model for him.
“He would always ask me, ‘When are you going to go back?’ and I would always say, ‘One day, one day.’” Leslie says. “After I had him, I always said to myself that I wanted to go back to school, but I didn’t know what I wanted to study.”
Leslie has been putting others’ needs first her whole life, and her special-needs students at Thomas Jefferson inspired her academic path once she decided to go back. She’s taken care of ill relatives and raised a son, and works full-time in special education and has a part-time job as a caregiver at an assisted-living facility for seniors. All while going back to school.
“She has taken only a few classes at a time, but she has never given up,” says Lisa Kirscht, an individualized-degree specialist at MSU Denver. “She has been dedicated to gaining the knowledge to continue to serve the special-needs students she works with in the DPS system.”
Leslie also credits her co-workers in DPS for helping her with her schoolwork and helping her continue on when she when she wanted to quit, such as the semester she took off because she was in the hospital with hard-to-diagnose medical issues. Her assistant principal, Paula Hammel, helped her with schoolwork. Teachers Amy Kalinchuk, Elizabeth Lynch and Jennifer Sonheim inspired her and pushed her along the way. And of course, no one is happier to see her graduate than her son, who beat her to a college degree by seven months.
“I have a lot of people backing me,” Leslie says. “I had a lot of obstacles in the way, and it’s not an easy journey, but I have the drive and the dream to finish.”
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