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  • Writer's pictureReach University

Siskiyou Candidate Spotlight: Natalie Casarez

Updated: Apr 17

(YREKA, California) To Natalie Casarez, college had always meant having to choose between her present and her future.

She had already pursued her bachelor’s degree twice, and both times she found that traditional higher education simply did not mesh well with the rest of her life.

In 2018, Cazarez moved away from her hometown of Fresno, California and took her journey north to Siskiyou County, to the small, big-mountain city of Yreka, the dilemma over her degree only seemed to worsen. The hills to climb had her surrounded.

“When we moved back in 2018, I was at the point of dropping out of school again,” Casarez explains. “Yreka is my husband’s hometown, so we have family here. I felt like the program I was in back then required time from me that I just couldn’t commit to, especially being a mom of two at the time. I was dropping out, but I didn’t want to.”

Casarez settled into Siskiyou through the same work that came naturally to her back in Fresno: she was hired as a classroom aide at Yreka’s Golden Eagle Charter School, a decision that would ultimately lead to an alternative pathway to her bachelor’s degree, one she didn’t know existed.

She already had experience working both in and out of the classroom, serving in a variety of roles as needed. At Golden Eagle, Casarez could be anywhere. She might be greeting students at the door in the morning; she might be in a meeting taking notes; she might be on a walk counseling a student; she might be serving lunch. Casarez literally drives the bus at Golden Eagle.

“I’m everywhere and nowhere,” she says with a smile. “Wherever the need is!”

Casarez soon became aware of Reach University’s job-embedded bachelor’s degree program. It was then that her entire perspective on college changed. She always assumed the degree she was after would lead to her job. But for college to work for her, she needed college to work in the other direction.

Casarez is flourishing, and is even expecting a third child soon, and all without any of the various mental health and financial challenges she experienced at other stops: “I didn’t want to fail this go-around. Being able to go to school, work full time, take care of my kids, and manage my pregnancy–it’s amazing. I’ve been able to manage it without mental health issues, which was always an issue for me.

“The pricing for college, in general, is shocking,” she continues. “Reach isn’t going to put me into any debt. I thought it was incredibly reasonable compared to the typical college setting, and the flexibility has been great for me.”

Casarez is on a paid-to-earn degree path that fits both her life and her budget. For $75 per month, she attends all of her Reach University classes online, and her “college campus” is her workplace: Golden Eagle Charter School. Ms. Casarez is a talented member of her community who wants to serve, and this is how the job-embedded degree can help address teacher shortages: by accessing a talent pipeline that is already there and waiting for resources, especially in isolated communities. Casarez has a clear pathway to becoming one of the many certified teachers Siskiyou County needs.

At Golden Eagle, Casarez’s students are aware of her coursework, and some have even grown curious. She explained that kids like hers, those in more rural and isolated areas, are too often forced to assume that the only road to a career is the one heading out of town.

“All the students here know that I’m going to school, and they know this is not my first attempt at college,” she says. “I’m very open about education with our kids. They either only have a very traditional understanding of college, or they don’t have any knowledge of college whatsoever. So I try to show them that even at my age it’s never too late.

“I like to tell them about the Reach program and how amazing it’s been for me personally. They tie your home life and your work life to your schooling, and you don’t have to go looking for resources. You can complete your assignments doing what you do on a normal day at work. So you have kids here that are now thinking differently about college.”

The job-embedded aspect has not only enabled Casarez’s ability to keep up with school, she also enjoys how it makes her better at her job in real time. The online classes are unique in that they are live, using Oxford-style seminars to supplement the other half of her coursework, which is her job. She says she notices a difference in her work, and has a confidence as both a student and a teacher that comes from all of the applied practice she is getting.

“I love taking what I just learned the night before to work with me the next day,” she says, noting the value of the synchronous coursework. “Then I take my questions from the workday back with me to class. Whatever situation comes up, I know I can ask my professor and get an answer. I love putting what I just learned into practice and I’m doing more now than I ever have.”

Looking back on her journey, one filled with unexpected twists and barriers, Casarez is relieved to have found a transparent pathway that will allow her to achieve the upward mobility she’s been chasing for years. She says there is a light in front of her now that has never been there before.

The newfound optimism means everything to Casarez, whose family has been at her side through it all. She says she is determined to prove to her children that goals can be met by not giving up.

“My husband and my oldest kid have seen the struggle I’ve been through. I feel like I can see the ending. In the past, I didn’t know if I could get there. I was so exhausted and didn’t know what I could accomplish. Now I can see it, and before you know it, I’ll be the teacher I’ve always wanted to be.

I know I can do this now. I know I can accomplish my long-term goal.”

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