While she was growing up, Chennie Castañon never considered going to college. Her family moved frequently; it was a lifestyle that created challenges for Chennie’s education. As a high school student, she attended no less than eight schools. Unable to settle into one school for any length of time, Chennie lost academic credits and was forced to repeat courses. Discouraged by her teachers and principals, Chennie decided to quit school when she was 17. In spite of her haphazard education, Chennie passed the GED to receive her high school proficiency certificate. Suddenly on her own, this resilient young woman spent the next ten years working to support herself and discovering what kind of a career she wanted to pursue.
For four years, Chennie worked for an airline as a flight attendant, an opportunity that allowed her to travel the world. Her next career was in retail, a field in which she was successful and she enjoyed. With an eye toward climbing the corporate ladder, Chennie found she was passed over for promotions because she lacked a college degree. “That was a tough realization but it helped me decide that I needed to go to college.”
At the age of twenty-seven, Chennie resolved to give college a try -- but not without anxiety, “I worried that I was too old and wouldn’t fit in; I expected to fail.” She started small by enrolling in two classes at CSM: English and pre-algebra. “My math instructor, Professor Cheryl Gregory was a wonderful teacher – very patient, especially considering the wide range of ages in the class. Because of her incredible teaching style, I would rearrange my schedule to be in her class—from pre-algebra all the way to applied calculus.” In her first semester, Chennie earned A’s which helped build her confidence; each subsequent semester she increased her load until she eventually quit working to become a full-time student. “I made the decision to invest time and money in my education so that I would have future job prospects available to me.” I began to feel comfortable at CSM, even though I was older than most students.”
With an affinity for math and science and an interest in environmental sciences, Chennie was inspired by Professor of Biology Tania Beliz and declared biology as her major. She received assistance from her science professors in selecting courses that would prepare her to transfer. “The courses are quality, faculty care about their teaching and they make themselves available to their students; more students should definitely take advantage of that.”
While at CSM, Chennie participated in a summer internship, Tobacco Litter Awareness Campaign which resulted in the City of Pacifica passing the first ordinance in the county to ban smoking on beaches. From that experience, Chennie stepped up her environmental activism and launched an Eco Club at CSM. The club helped to promote a restricted smoking policy on the campus which eventually led to a change in the college’s policy.
With support from her professors, Chennie aimed high and applied to UC Berkeley as a transfer student. However, while waiting to hear from Berkeley, a sudden change in her financial situation required her take a leave of absence from college to return to work; she contacted UCB to rescind her application for admissions. “When I returned from work one day, I found a blue and gold package from Berkeley and thought, how nice of them to send me a catalog; when I opened it, it was my letter of acceptance. When I called the university to explain it must be a mistake, they assured me that it wasn’t and they also offered me a financial aid package that covered all of my educational expenses. The stars must have been aligned because I felt like I was meant to attend Berkeley. “
In 2009, Chennie graduated from Berkeley with a B.S. degree in conservation resource studies. “CSM prepared me for Berkeley and the hugeness of the university.”
Thanks to her college education--CSM and UC--and a lot of perseverance, Chennie is employed as a biologist with an environmental consulting firm in San Francisco. She is currently serving as an environmental inspector on the San Andreas seismic upgrade project doing what she loves: “I get to work outside, get dirty and look for wildlife to make sure they are not harmed by the construction activities.” As she looks back over her education, Chennie says, “Community college is a wonderful platform to step into college whether you know what you want to do or not and without the pressure of a large university.”