Leisha Haley was lost. A former high school dropout who was addicted to drugs, in and out of jail and out of touch with her adult daughter, Leisha yearned for a better life.

She found it at Los Angeles Southwest College.

“LA Southwest gave me everything I needed to accomplish everything that I set out to do,” she said. “It changed me. It gave me hope. It provided me with goals. It gave me something to strive for.”

Thanks to the services and support at the South Central Los Angeles campus where more than half of those enrolled are first-generation college students, Leisha, now 56 years old, graduated June 4 with associate degrees in sociology and behavioral science. Leisha transfers this fall to Cal State Dominguez Hills, where she’s planning to earn a bachelor’s and master’s degree before launching a career as a marriage and family therapist.

Her EOPS counselor at Los Angeles Southwest College, Angelica Arauza, said Leisha embodies what the college, and the California Community Colleges, is all about.

“Many of the students we work with are overcoming barriers – whether it’s drug addiction, homelessness, being a former foster youth – so what we strive for is to provide all the support, tutoring, advisement and encouragement they need to build their confidence and reach their goals,” Arauza said. “Leisha had been through a lot. She had her doubts when she first came here. She didn’t believe in herself. But we did what we could to help her along her path.

“I am so proud of her and what she has accomplished.”

Leisha’s journey of redemption has had more than its share of ups and downs. Born in Louisiana and raised primarily in the San Fernando area of Los Angeles, she endured a challenging childhood. At age 16, she opted to drop out of Sylmar High School and move away from home after her mother died. She gave birth to a daughter at age 17 and began working in a string of low-paying jobs to make ends meet.

“I always wanted my high school diploma, but I never had the time to get it, so I continued to work,” Leisha said.

By the time she reached her 30s, Leisha faced another barrier when she got caught up in the crack cocaine epidemic. That led to losing custody of her child and repeated stays at the county jail after too many probation violations and failed drug tests. 

"The judge got tired of seeing me in court and sent me to prison for violating probation,” Leisha said. “He said I was a train wreck waiting to happen.”

Less than a year later, Leisha was back in Los Angeles and determined to change. “I needed to clean up my life,” she said. “I did not want to die a drug addict. When I die, I want to go to Heaven. I prayed to God to help guide me, and He did.”

Leisha’s epiphany came full circle during a sociology class at Los Angeles Southwest College when the professor encouraged her to secure her high school diploma through a Los Angeles public library program. Less than two years after her high school commencement at the downtown Los Angeles library – “an amazing, unforgettable experience” – Leisha had also earned two associate degrees.

“When I first went to LA Southwest, I was only taking one or two classes at a time because I was scared,” Leisha said. “I hadn’t been back in school since I had dropped out of high school. But Angelica kept encouraging me. She kept fighting for me. She kept pushing me to go beyond an associate degree and to earn a bachelor’s, to go beyond a bachelor’s and earn a master’s.”

It hasn’t been easy. Leisha works full time at a drug treatment center, and she has undergone operations on her knees and shoulders. But she has long been reunited with her daughter, and they remain closer than ever.

“LA Southwest believed in me,” Leisha said. “They didn’t allow my past to dictate my future.”

Said her EOPS counselor: “So many times we’ll have students thank us for what we’ve done to help them along their path. But it’s really us who need to thank them for bringing meaning to our lives.”