10:33 AM

EOP Hosts Inspiring Conference for High School Students

By Bri Phillips

The Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) welcomed ninth-grade girls from 14 high schools throughout San Diego County for the 28th annual Sisters Gonna Work It Out conference at Cal State San Marcos on Nov. 3. 

“I've been hosting this conference for 28 years because you are my future,” Michael Lewis, EOP special coordinator/transitional counseling, told attendees. “Today begins a relationship with all of us. When you go to college, we are your resources.” 

This Thursday, EOP will host the Brothers Gonna Work It Out conference for high school boys. The conference series provides support and strategies to African American, Latinx, Samoan and American Indian high school students who are at risk of facing environmental challenges in school and at home. 

The Sisters Gonna Work It Out conference included a panel of four professional women who have succeeded in their careers and have compelling personal stories. 

Althea Williams, founder of She Vets It, a podcast hosted by women veterans that explore topics related to entrepreneurship and career, was the first speaker. Williams flew from Texas to share her experience serving in Afghanistan and Germany, and how she took her path to becoming a business owner. 

“Everything is possible,” Williams said. “You need to write it down and make a plan and connect with people that have the ability to translate that into something. I'm not just saying that because I was a single mom who had a child at 18. I went through a long journey. But guess what? I ended up getting my MBA. I worked for the chamber of commerce. I was in the military. It doesn't matter what your background is, no matter where you come from. The sky's the limit if you really believe in yourself.” 

Sharon Whitehurst-Payne, who serves as a trustee for the San Diego Unified School District, reflected on when she was in eighth grade and there were still Jim Crow laws in Virginia. 

“I know I don't look that old, but I grew up in a segregated South,” Whitehurst-Payne said. “But my family decided that we were going to go to college.” 

Whitehurst-Payne became a math teacher when she was 21. In college, she was selected to explore a career path in engineering and computer science at Virginia Tech. 

“Exploring another field helped me decide what I wanted to do, and that was teaching,” Whitehurst-Payne told attendees. “I'm encouraging you right now. You're here today and you see the university. This is a wonderful place. I remember when it was located at the furniture store. This university did not exist. It was a vision, it was a dream in someone's mind. Don't let the world define who you are and what you're going to be. You decide that and you can do it.” 

Another speaker, Guadalupe Gonzalez, a San Diego County Office of Education board member and CSUSM alumna, worked as a faculty member at San Diego Mesa College for over 20 years. 

Gonzalez is the youngest of 11 siblings, and her father died when she was only a year old. To help provide for the family, Gonzalez and her siblings would pick cotton after school until it was dark. 

“Out of the 11 kids, I was the only one that went to college,” Gonzalez said. “Because I surrounded myself with people that told me I could do it. I grew up being told that all I had to do was learn how to cook and clean. I skipped a grade and graduated high school at 16. But what did I do at 17? I got married because that's what I was raised to do. I got pregnant at 17 years old. But guess what? He was not a great guy. He ended up being an abuser.”

While raising four children, Gonzalez took college classes when she could. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree at 38 years old and obtained her master’s from San Diego State when she was 40. 

“You may not graduate from college when you're 22,” Gonzalez said. “You may not even do it at 38 like I did, but the point is that you can do it.”

CSUSM President Ellen Neufeldt completed the panel by sharing her personal path to higher education. Neufeldt encouraged the audience to consider becoming a college president one day. 

“It's really important that more females do this job, especially more females of color because that's how we're going to change the system to make sure that more and more people are finding their way in,” Neufeldt said.

Media Contact

Eric Breier, Public Affairs Specialist

ebreier@csusm.edu | Office: 760-750-7314