Siskiyou Candidate Spotlight: Melissa Sardo
(DORRIS, California ) Nestled in the remote flatland between Southern Oregon’s Mount McLoughlin and Northern California’s Mount Shasta, the old railroad town of Dorris sits quietly by itself. Less than 1,000 people are huddled together in a flat grid: a place Dorris’s own Melissa Sardo says she once considered a “black hole.”
“I always thought I’d get sucked back in, and I never wanted that. I wanted to get as far away as possible.”
Sometimes, however, opportunity knocks where life is most familiar. Sardo now finds herself back where she started, doing two things she never thought possible: attending college in Dorris, and working towards a career in Dorris.
Sardo attends her college classes online through Reach University’s job-embedded bachelor’s degree program. Her job is her coursework and the classroom, where Sardo works as an aide, has become her campus. She is paid to earn her degree by offering her time and talent to her community. Dorris benefits from her work, and Sardo accrues zero debt while providing it.
“People ask me about what I’m doing, and when I tell them, they say they’ve never heard of anything like that,” she explains. “I get to use my work experience and put it towards classroom requirements. I have the flexibility that allows me to do things, and I don’t have to be completely tied down by school. It’s also been easy for me to transition into the program, which surprised me because technology is not always a strength of mine.”
Much like the decision to move back to Dorris, Sardo had always maintained that online coursework was simply not an option: it didn’t fit her learning style, and she had very limited confidence in her technology skills.
But Sardo is now thriving in both a work setting, and in a learning environment, that she swore were not suited to her strengths.
“Reach has been so much easier to navigate than I expected. It hasn’t been an issue at all,” Sardo explains. “I was so relieved by that aspect. I was convinced that I had to be in the classroom to go back to school. I figured I couldn’t do online school because of how old I am now. I said it’s not for me. It’s too much technology and I’m not that technology-driven.
But I know I can do this now. I know I’ve got this!”
Sardo feels that her overall confidence has greatly improved since enrolling at Reach, and finds herself participating in her classes more than she can ever remember. She brings several years of classroom experience to her courses, and the job-embedded instruction has helped her come to a better understanding of skills and concepts she’s already been using in different classroom settings.
“I never wanted to talk in class before,” Sardo says. “But when I came into the program, I quickly realized I knew how to do some things. I’ve been doing them for years; I just didn’t know I was. Now I can put everything I’m doing in class into my workday. The classes and my job are combined. They coincide really well together. I’m really loving it, because I can see the change in myself and how it’s shaping my career. I can see the kind of teacher that I want to become.”
The path to Sardo’s experience at Reach has not been traveled without its low points. Despite her years of classroom experience in various capacities, Sardo had almost given up on the pursuit of a bachelor’s degree. She felt the financial burden would always be too much.
“I wanted to pursue my bachelor’s degree, but I couldn’t financially support myself at the time,” she explains. “I wanted to go back to school, and I told myself I would as soon as I’d saved enough money. I moved back to Dorris because that’s what I could afford.”
Through financial aid and philanthropy, Reach University tuition costs only $75 per month. Sardo is paid to earn her bachelor’s degree, and she is also earning professional capital. She works as an aid in a Siskiyou County unit that operates out of Butte Valley Elementary School, in a room that will soon be in need of a new certified teacher.
Dorris, as it turns out, is not a black hole: the low cost of living, as well as the upward mobility afforded by her degree path, have allowed Sardo and her family to start looking forward to the future. Plans can start being made.
“When I first heard what the Reach tuition cost was, I thought it wasn’t real,” Sardo says. “When I graduate, we’re going to buy a house here in Dorris. This is where I plan on teaching. My boss said ‘you can’t leave, I won’t let you leave, you’re going to be here’. So that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to buy a house here and teach right here in Dorris.”