Mary Olvera | On Chats that Change Lives

November 15, 2023

Mary went from working in a sock factory to serving as education program administrator/CTE coordinator for the North Carolina Community College System. Twenty years ago, she was a single mom working on her associate degree in ECE while trying to care for a disabled child. And the pressure of doing so much had begun to overwhelm her. She was about to quit school when one of her professors at Surry Community College gave her the courage to go on. “When I told Dr. Kay Hamlin how I was feeling,” Mary recalls, “she said, ‘You can’t quit. You have more potential than anyone else in my class.’ Then Dr. Hamlin told me her story of raising three sons while building a career. And the encouragement she gave me changed my life.”

Mary wound up finishing her associate degree and going on for a Ph.D. in educational leadership. To earn it, she wrote a dissertation on women who completed doctoral studies despite facing pervasive crises. She looked at women who achieved their academic goals while dealing with roadblocks like poverty, teenage pregnancy, single motherhood and domestic abuse. Such factors tend to be predictors of poor academic performance. Yet these women overcame them because someone saw their promise, opened a door for them and urged them to walk through it—the story of Mary’s own life.

“When I think back to my early years, I realize I didn’t receive what you need to succeed,” she says. “I didn’t grow up in a household that encouraged education though I always loved school. When I was nine, my aunt said, ‘It’s a shame Mary is never going to amount to anything though she’s smart,’ words I clearly recall,” Mary explains. And it seemed at first that Mary’s aunt was correct. “I was in high school when I had my oldest son, got married and then went right to work at the sock factory.” The thought of being a teacher was not on Mary’s radar until her third son, Isaiah, was born with CHARGE or Hall-Hitner syndrome, a rare condition that affects development and growth.

She had to quit her job in the sock factory to care for her fragile little boy. “Isaiah had a feeding disorder when he was born and had to eat through a tube for almost four years,” she recalls. “He had heart surgery when he was 28 days old. He was hearing impaired and was considered nonverbal for a while. So, I had to get nursing care for him and do everything I possibly could to help him survive. I learned sign language to communicate with him and began taking some courses at Surry Community College on child development and brain science to understand his issues better. I never intended to earn a degree because I knew I would have to go back to work as soon as Isaiah’s health improved.”

Still, Mary became engrossed in what she was learning and how it applied to her son. “The courses on how to surmount developmental delays really hooked me as I saw the information I was getting play out in Isaiah’s life. He was getting better as he received therapy to help him learn to roll over and use the muscles in his face to eat,” Mary recalls. But her life was getting worse as she began going through a separation from her husband. She was about to throw up her hands at school when she had that life-changing chat with Dr. Hamlin, which led her to earn her associate degree.

Around that time, Isaiah was old enough and healthy enough to go to preschool. So, Mary began a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and began volunteering at LifeSpan Circle School to gain real-life experience in the early childhood classroom. Building a career required Mary to put Isaiah in child care, and she was anxious about leaving her son with someone else because he was still so tiny.

“But the amazing people at LifeSpan really knew their stuff,” as she recalls. And she learned something, too, one day when she went to pick him up at the school. “When I went to get Isaiah’s bag, the teaching assistant turned to him and said, ‘Tell your momma that you can do it by yourself.’ He did and I realized then that children are often capable of much more than you might think. When Isaiah was a baby, the doctors thought that he would never be able to walk, talk or have the intelligence to attend school, but Isaiah defied all expectations. He’s a gifted artist and writer. He was able to attend mainstream classes in high school and graduated with good enough grades to get into college,” as Mary is proud to say.

She also advanced her education and her career as she went on to become the lead teacher at LifeSpan and used her sign language skills to help teach autistic children in Surry County Schools. Then she became a lead instructor of early childhood education at Surry Community College, the same job Dr. Hamlin had when she turned Mary’s life around. “I knew I had to pay it forward by helping someone like me, so I left the college four years ago and came to work for the North Carolina Community College System where I’m in charge of CTE programs, including ECE, in 58 colleges throughout the state.”

Mary helps colleges create applications for new programs and ensures the programs comply with curriculum standards. She is also deeply involved in programs to help students earn their Child Development Associate® (CDA) Credential™. Students can take the courses leading to the CDA® at the state’s community colleges, and then they can do their experience hours and CDA portfolio with Head Start, according to an agreement that has been in place since 2010, Mary explains. “If they come to one of the colleges and already hold a current CDA, they’ll get credits toward an associate degree, and we’re now working to align the portfolio with our workforce certificate, which gives students credit for prior learning. So, there is lot of support in the state for the CDA credential.”

Some of it is driven by recent legislation, as Mary points out. Recently, North Carolina passed a law including the CDA in its star rating system as part of a broader effort to modernize the state’s quality rating and improvement system (QRIS). As of October 1, 2023, the Infant-Toddler CDA and Preschool CDA have counted toward filling the requirements for a star-rated license. And giving more recognition for the CDA is opening doors for talented people in the early childhood field by focusing more on competence at work than on grades in classes.

“What I love about the CDA,” she explains, “is the way it pairs knowledge with practice. The portfolio is also an authentic way of representing what someone can do in the classroom, especially if they aren’t adept at taking tests. They can also bring their portfolio to job interviews to give prospective employers a good picture of their work,” she says.

And her colleagues in the community college system share her enthusiasm for the CDA. “They have done a tremendous job of creating more content and assessments for the credential,” she explains. “In addition, we’re working with the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction to align high school CDA courses with courses at the college level to encourage more young people to enter the early childhood field.”

The high school CDA students who Mary and her colleagues are now working to support are very different from the students who she taught as an instructor for nearly 12 years at Surry Community College. “When I first went to work there, a lot of factories had closed, and people were coming in to take early childhood courses because they had lost their jobs. And throughout my time there, I also had a lot of moms who were already working full time in child care,” Mary recalls. And she empathized with the challenges they faced.

“It’s hard being married, having kids and going to school,” she says. “When you’re in that position, it’s important to realize that some people can carry a heavier load than others and you shouldn’t feel guilty if you go a little easier on yourself”—advice she gave to a young, overwhelmed mom.

‘She was going through a lot of anxiety and on the verge of breaking down when she came to my office one day,” Mary recalls. “She was supposed to graduate soon with her associate degree but there was so much on her plate that she was afraid of failing some classes. When I urged her to cut down on her coursework, she told me she felt she would let her family down by not graduating on time. But I urged her to go easy on herself, drop a couple of classes and graduate the next semester. She took my advice and was going strong by the time she walked across the stage in her cap and gown. Then she went on to earn her BA and now she’s an amazing teacher at a charter school. And when I think of her, I remember the chat I had with her in my office and how much I wanted to get her through that day,” Mary says. The support she gave that young mom changed her life. Mary had indeed paid it forward to someone like she once was.


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