Outdreaming your circumstances

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Alumna lifts herself out of poverty with a Clark College education

Clark College is a special place for lots of people. It’s where they began their college educations or launched new careers. But to Cosette “CoCo” Leary ’09, Clark is nothing less than the hallowed ground.

For Cosette “Coco” Leary, Clark College was the first step in her climb out of generational poverty.

For CoCo Leary ’09, Clark College was her village. Her professors saw in her what she knew was inside but had yet to figure out. Today, she’s a successful author, life coach and speaker.

“My love affair with Clark College—and yes, I call it a love affair and I would like for that to be expressed—really started because Clark is where I discovered my authority of my life,” she said.

Leary was born into generational poverty and abuse, bouncing between foster homes and group homes. At age 15, while she was still in foster care, Leary gave birth to her first child. Despite those hurdles, today, she works as a motivational speaker, life coach and author of an inspirational memoir, “From Welfare to the White House.” She has lifted herself and her family out of poverty. Leary is thriving and her mostly grown children are thriving, too.

“If it had not been for me being able to attend Clark, I don’t really know what the narrative of my life would be,” she said.

Shortly after her daughter was born, Leary and her daughter moved from Sacramento, Calif., to Vancouver, Wash., to live with Leary’s grandmother. Leary longed to study political science and become a leader. She wanted to earn enough money to be independent and give her daughter a better life. But as a teen mother dependent on social services to scrape by, her choices were limited.

If she quit her low-paying job at a daycare center, social workers told her the only way she could keep receiving assistance was to enroll in a narrowly defined skills training program. In other words, to pursue the broader four-year degree she wanted meant giving up subsidized child care.

“Okay, I’ll go to nursing school,” Leary said. But she hadn’t completed the prerequisites for nursing school and the assistance programs available didn’t extend to that kind of general schooling.

Eventually, Leary applied for a work-study position at Clark College. She worked as a receptionist in the International Studies department and enrolled in courses toward a political science degree.

“It really speaks to the value of community college,” she said. “If I hadn’t gone to community college, I couldn’t have shown my children that you can outdream your circumstances.”

Through her work for International Studies, she gave campus tours to visitors from overseas, which broadened her horizons. As these interactions increased, so did her confidence.

“I remember feeling important,” she said of her time at Clark. “When I walked through Gaiser Hall, I would hold my head up high because I was a college student.”

After Clark, Leary moved to the East Coast and changed her major from political science to public administration. She became an intern and then a staff member in the offices of a U.S. congressional member and senator. She graduated from Capella University summa cum laude. Leary later started building a business of life coaching and motivational speaking.

Leary wrote a short e-book telling her story. In it, she explains how others can transform their own lives. The book’s acknowledgments section is full of Clark faculty and staff, including Michael Ceriello, political science professor; Marilyn Howell, a now-retired professor of sociology;  Dr. Debi Jenkins, chair of Clark’s Early Childhood Education department; Joe Pitkin, English professor; Rosalba Pitkin, program coordinator in the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, Susan Taylor, Leary’s former boss in International Studies, and Leann Ruth Johnson, Clark’s former director of equity and inclusion.

“They were my village,” she said. “My professors … saw in me what I knew was in me but I didn’t know how to get out. They saw my grit, they saw my tenacity, they saw my emotional intelligence as well as my academic intelligence. They were amazed by me and I was amazed by them.”

She still keeps in touch with many of her Clark professors.

“I will forever be a Penguin.”

Written by Lily Raff McCaulou, a writer based in Bend, Ore. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Rolling Stone and of course, Clark Partners magazine.

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