My name is Giselle Alvarenga.
I’m a mother, a sister, a friend, and someone you can trust.
I work for a janitorial company.
We hire people to clean offices, schools, anything. Anything we can clean, we can do it.
I attended Warren Easton Fundamental High School from 9th grade to 11th grade.
My 11th grade year, I got a job at Cafe Du Monde. And the guy offered me hours - you know, like day shift. When you’re a teenager, it’s really hard for you to get a day shift job. They only give like part-time, in the afternoon or at night. So I was going to school twice a week and then working all the rest of the days. I’d just recently finished 11th grade at Warren Easton and they told me that I wasn’t able to return back for my senior year, which was devastating because of course I was there 3 years.
If I could’ve went back, I would’ve finished school and not missed so many days, ‘cause that’s the reason why Warren Easton couldn’t accept me back. I had like 40 days missing. Why? Because I had a job. I ended up going to another high school which wasn’t really nothing compared to where I was. So I thought maybe working was better than going to school because at least I was going to be making money for me to help my mom with bills. But here I am 12 years later, with the same - not the same job, but just working. It really didn’t do too much, you know.
How soon after you left school did you decide that maybe you wished you’d done something different?
Um, it was 6 years after I started the dish job [that] Katrina hit. When Katrina hit, I was like “Oh my god, what am I going to do now? You know, like, everything in New Orleans is underwater, there is no job.” So I found myself in Baton Rouge, and I’m like filling out job applications...and I’m embarrassed to even check the box, you know, saying that I don’t have a high school diploma or a HiSET or anything like that.
So it was things like that that was like, “You know what? You need to do something. At least get your HiSET...at least get that out the way. ‘Cause every job application I filled out, when I’d get to that part, it just made me feel so bad, you know? Like “You know this stuff” and “You coulda did it, but you chose the other way.”
What were you doing before you decided to come back to school?
I was working a job which I’ve been at for about 12 years. And I found myself wanting more money, more respect from my coworkers, and just more in life. And I just thought that I should take that challenge and see if I should go to school and get a degree in something where I can become more - you know, be someone more helpful to others and myself.
You know, I came when this program first started up - the HiSET program. And...it was the same. It was like either do this or go to work. So I was still choosing to go to work, you know...
But, my grandmother sat me down like a year and a half ago and was like, “Giselle, I don’t see you in the future keep doing what you’re doing, you know. Like, I know you belong somewhere else.” And it took my grandmother, you know, a hundred year old lady, to tell me, you know, like, “You’re not supposed to be cleaning up or, you know, getting other people to clean up.” She was like, “You could be doing something else and...showing and teaching other people to do other things that are better for them, instead of just cleaning up.”
Before she passed away, I told her that I did it, what she asked me.
...You know, that she believed in me so I did it. And I told her, “Thank you,” you know, “for giving me that push that I needed.” Sometimes you’re alone and nobody believes in you, you know? They’re like, “Okay, that’s Giselle, she works for ABM.” That’s how I felt that people looked at me, like, “There’s Giselle. You still work for that cleaning service?” So I wanted to break that, and my grandmother was the one that saw it in me, and I just believed her. So I believed her and it made me believe in myself.
Well, I lot of people were like, “Oh, you’re going to school?” and I’m like, “Yeah, I’m tryin’ to get my HiSET,” and they were like, “Didn’t you go - weren’t you gettin’ that like a few years back?” and I was like, “Yeah, but I wasn’t really ready...” I was just going, you know, to be able to get outta the house, the have something to do. I wasn’t taking it seriously. But now that I’m taking it seriously and I see how much I’ve grown in just one year, you know, I just wanna keep going at it.
And my friends see that also, so once they saw that I was doing better, you know, they’re like, “Well what do I have to do to be able to go to school and be able to learn a little more so that I can get my HiSET? And that’s how I was able to get my best friend to join. And I’m still working on some other people, but I’ll be able to get some more people. [Laughs.]
I never would’ve thought that we would’ve been able to start college without a high school equivalency. If I would’ve known that a long time ago - which, I don’t think they were doing it back then, but it’s definitely a motivation. You know, ‘cause you’re just not going to school to get you’re HiSET...you know, you can keep going, and that makes a person, you know, feel better because you’re like, “Okay, it doesn’t have to stop here.” As of right now, I’ve completed my second semester in college and I’m about to take my HiSET in the next few weeks.
[Going back to school has] changed a lot on how I see things. People always think college is just partying and stuff like that, but you’re really just preparing yourself for the rest of your life.
And I just found myself that I was just wasting time. And, now you like at things like, “Okay, time is precious.” You have to know exactly what you’re doing, or you’ll just find yourself wasting time. And now it’s like...CUT: just what I’ve accomplished in two semesters is way better than what -- I’ve been doing nothing for like five years. So just in two semesters, I feel much better about myself than the last five or six years, you know.
And when you say you were doing nothing in those years, what do you really mean by that? ‘Cause I happen to know you weren’t doing nothing.
Just working. Work. Trying to work overtime, working two jobs...I was killing myself working so hard when I could’ve just been going to school with that time that I was trying to work extra hours or filling in for someone...I did all that but I’m still at the same position I am at the job. So I feel like if I would’ve been came, you know, I could’ve been a little bit more further on what I’m trying to do...which is become successful. [Laughs.]
And to you, what does it look like to be successful?
To me, being successful is being able to get my family into a better situation, financially and community-wise. And also, bringing my friends also with me. You know, introducing them into a new way of life, making yourself better, ‘cause all we know is “Grow up, get a job” - that’s it. You gotta pay the bills. And no one was there to teach us you can go to school and do something better for yourself. I know now, and I will always make sure that anyone I can bring along with me, I’m gonna take them with me.
I really wanna break that stereotype that all Latin women just clean up.
...You know, I tell my daughter that. I’m like, “You’re not going to be a maid! You’re gonna be something else. You’re not gonna be a cleaning lady.” So, I don’t want people to look at my daughter and be like, “Oh, she’s gonna be a maid,” or “She’s gonna work in a kitchen,” or something like that. So, you gotta do what you gotta do.
For the 12 years I’ve worked for ABM Janitorial...
...I’ve learned how to communicate with people. I also witness different companies who come in to the office building, like computer companies. And I see the changes in computers, and how they change equipment, and how everything is upgrading. So, that’s why I’m going to school, so I can really know exactly what it is that you have to do to work on computers.
I’m taking Computer & Network Administrator [courses].
I would like to have a business like computer repair, cell phone repair, virus removal, upgrades, stuff like that. My goal is to really know how to work computers of all kinds and be able to help people get into what they really wanna do with computers.
As in help other people enter that field as well?
Yes. Like, show them that you can work your way up. It’d also be nice to be able to have someone that can teach - like if a person doesn’t know how to use basic skills like send an email, check their email...you know, have like a little center in there where people can go in and...something for free, you know? Like if you wanna come bring your computer in to get fixed, you can go sit over there and work on a computer and learn a few things about it that’ll help you be able to fix you own computer at home.
If I do it, I’m gonna get my best friend to come work and train her and show her this is what we have to do, and make it like a family business. That way we all eat.
I have a contract with the Drug Enforcement Agency.
And they have an IT team which I would love to be on, for many reasons. I know the people there - I’ve been there three years. It’s kinda cool to work with the police and stuff like that. And I really think it’d be nice to work with them and show them, you know, like, I’m just not the cleaning person, you know, the cleaning boss lady. I can also be, you know, as a team with them.
And do they know you’re in school? The people who work there, do they know you’re in school?
Yes. They support me on my decision to go back to school. Some of the IT guys also helped me out. They gave me computer books...you know, anything dealing with computers, internet, software. The guys help me. They give me books, advice, they help me with projects. So, yeah, they’re like, “Yes, Team Giselle! We want you to come on board.”
How would that feel?
It would feel awesome, because, you know, I’m pretty close with the agents at work, (CUT? and I just see, you know, how it is.) You get paid time off...You know, working for the government is way better than any other kind of regular job. [Laughs.] The IT team gets to travel. They also get to build stuff, like put a camera in a clock, or something. Or put a camera in your button on your tee shirt. Yes, I’ve seen all kinds of stuff. So it looks pretty fun to work, you know, with these guys, and hopefully I will be one day an IT tech for the DEA.
Did you ever imagine you might have a job related to law enforcement?
Never. When you come out the neighborhood where I come from, we don’t associate ourselves with law enforcement. It took a long time for me to actually even just think, “Oh my god, I’m gonna work with the police?” It’s so many emotions, ‘cause when you grow up and everyone around you doesn’t like the police, you grow up like, “Okay, I don’t like the police either,” you know. Like, “They’re not good.” It took for me to work there to learn, you know, like all police is not the same. They’re not the same. So I give those guys so much respect because of what they do everyday. They put their life on the line everyday. And yes, some are bad and some are good. So, it’s a pleasure working with them.
Me and 'Tasha - that's my best friend.
I met her through my brother in high school. That’s his high school girlfriend. I met her and we’ve just been best friends ever since. She’s like a sister to me. She’s like my sister in law. I think about her a lot because I know she has my nieces and nephews, and, if anything, you know, I would love to see her progress and become successful also, ‘cause she’s my family.
You mentioned your best friend. Do you know anyone else who’s gone back to school since you going back to school?
Well, I actually know one person who I told about the program, and her name is Kawanda White.
Kawanda White manages our office for Adult Education.
This was like years ago, and she was able to get her HiSET and actually get a job with Delgado. So that was also motivation for me to be like, “Okay, I need to come and do this because this will help me out in the long run. And now, she is helping me, you know, get my HiSET, so we’re just helping each other. Like a family...’Cause she’s like my family.
Who else has supported you in coming back to school?
I will say my boyfriend. We also have been together about thirteen years, and he watches our daughter so I can come to school. And it’s kinda hard for a dad, you know, he’s the one that has to feed her, take her a bath, stuff like that. So it’s like a team, teamwork, because without him, I probably wouldn’t be able to do it, ‘cause I wouldn’t be able to bring my daughter to class. [Laughs.] He’s been a big help.
And my friends also, you know. Like, me and Natasha, we get together and do study group together. I help her, even though we’re in two different fields - she’s in medical billing and coding and I’m over here in computers - she has to learn about computers so we work together.
My mom, she actually moved to Honduras, but she’s been a lot of support. She bought all my books this last semester. So it’s a big difference, you know, ‘cause when I was in high school, she really wasn’t, like, a part of my life. Working two jobs everyday you really don’t have time for anything else. So by my father not being present it was kinda hard. But now that I’m in college and she sees that I’m trying, she helps. She bought my books and software and anything I need for school, she’s like, “I will help you out.”
So family and friends is a major key in being able to go back to school and stuff like that.
Has anyone criticized your decision to come back to school?
No. Um, a lot of people know I’m not really big on negative stuff or judge-y stuffy. I don’t associate myself with people who like to talk stuff like that.
It's Like You're Hungry...
This previous semester, I had a teacher who was really, really hard.
I’ve never experience that but my friends told me that in college you’re gonna run into some professors that weren’t, like, no joke. They are strictly by the book, week-by-week, no days off, no go-home-early - just really hard. And he would make us do everything out the books. So there were nights when I would go to sleep at 2 and be at work for 7.
You know, he’d make me feel sometimes like, “Oh okay, well just drop the class.”
...Like he’ll tell the class, “Just drop it.” And that’d make me be like, “No, I’m not gonna drop it because you think that we can’t do it.” You know, I’ma do it.
How many people started that class and how many people finished that class?
It was twenty available seats and we ended with like ten, ten of us - half the class. And maybe like five guys in the class, they said that that was their second time taking that class. So everyone was pretty much struggling, but I told myself that I want to do this one time. I didn’t wanna take the class again and I didn’t wanna drop it. I just worked hard and asked for extra credit and just did what I did, so I could pass.
I’m definitely different from when I was in school before.
Before, it was, “Okay, let me just do this work and get it out the way so I can leave,” or whatever. Now it’s like, I don’t even want nothing under like a B. I want a B or an A. It’s kinda like work, and I just wanna perform the best that I can. I just don’t wanna say, “Oh, I went to school” and that’s it, and have Ds and Fs all on my transcripts. I wanna be above 3.0 every semester. And now, taking these classes that I’ve taken the last few months with ACE, I’ve learned about myself and different ways to study. That has helped me right now.
Were there times when you wondered if you could do it?
Yes. Sometimes I doubt myself. But I would just look at it like this, like: if I can pull 12 to 16 hour shifts, I can just take this for now, you know, like take this hardship for right now. So I know it’ll all pay off at the end.
And that class with the hard teacher, how did it turn out?
Well, I ended up passing it after doing extra credit every week, doing all my work and extra credit. I managed to pass the class, which I thought I wasn’t, but...Yeah, seeing that final grade just showed me, you know, like yeah, it was was worth it. 2 A.M. in the morning still studying, it was worth it. Studying at work, studying at my lunch break, it was all worth it.
Last semester I had a 4.0. This semester I had a 3.53, so my goal is to keep every semester over a 3.0. So I enjoy it, I’m learning. Two semesters in and I’ve learned so much.
What did you have to change about your life so that you be back in school, be a successful student?
I had to stop procrastinating, wasting time, being lazy. You have to change everything about yourself and really you gotta believe in yourself first. If you don’t think that you’re gonna do it and you’re thinking negative stuff all the time, it’s gonna be hard for you to even do anything. So I had to just look at myself in the mirror and just be like, in order for me to change my life, I have to change within myself first and stop wasting time - so much time - on nothing, which I could’ve been doing something productive.
So just starting off in my first semester, it just showed me a lot, you know, like this can work out. And if I just keep at it and want the As and Bs, like I said, I can do it because I did it already. It’s like you’re hungry and once you start eating, you just keep eating. [Laughs.] It’s like in high school, I always wanted to be like honor roll. All my friends would be 3.0’s and higher and I was always average, you know...2.8, 2.5... So by me going to college and actually getting a 4.0, I was so excited. I put it on Facebook, I put it on everything. [Laughs]
Giselle, of course. She’s my mini-me.
And I know how hard it’d be if she drop out of school, ‘cause I know I’ve been struggling for so long by me dropping out. I do it for her, so she can have a better life. And...my boyfriend. He’s been helping out and hopefully I can get him to join one day.
And what does little Giselle think about school right now? What’s her attitude toward school at the moment?
She’s actually struggling with reading. She has dyslexia and dysgraphia and ADD. So she kinda struggles with her work. Which, I was the opposite when I was young. I was very calm. I loved to read. So, it’s a challenge. For her, she was saying at the beginning of the school year that she didn’t like school, that it’s hard, and stuff like that.
So what I’m doing with her is we study. I study with her everyday. Even, like, before I do my homework, I do homework with her. I have to make sure that she knows what she’s doing. And I try to make it fun, because I know if it’s boring, you’re not gonna wanna read. Like when I was in high school, that’s how I felt. This new school where I was at, I could be somewhere making money. And that’s why I dropped out. So I don’t want her to feel like, “Okay, school is boring, I don’t wanna go anymore.” So that’s just me trying to help her.
But she’s liking it now. I told her, “School shouldn’t be boring to you. You know, like, do your work, learn, and then you can do whatever you want just as long as you respect your teacher and go by the rules.” Right now she’s in summer school for reading, these extra five weeks, to keep her on track, so when she goes back in August she’s not behind.
My daughter knows I’m in school...
...and she asks me all the time, “Mom, do you have homework?” and I’m like, “Yes, I have homework everyday, not just one day.” And she’s excited. She helps out.
How does she help out?
With my math, ‘cause she knows I don’t really like math. So she’ll come with her little calculator and is like, “Mom, I’ll help you. Just tell me what’s the problem,” and she’ll try to help me out like that.
We come from a family where not to many of us go to college...
...So I’ve been talking to her since she was in pre-K that I want her to go to college. And me doing it, is like the best way to show her, you know...And I tell her, “It’s fun! It’s fun at school.” [Laughs.] I tell her, “You’re going to love college. It’s very fun. It’s nothing like school right now.” But she looks up to me so I think me being in college is a big thing that would make her wanna go.
Do you think college is really different? Are you saying that ‘cause you think that actually is true or ‘cause you just want her to believe that?
Well, it is different. I mean, in high school you have to go to school or in elementary you have to go to school. College is something that you wanna do, yourself. You’re makin’ the effort to wanna change, and in order to change your lifestyle, you know, you have to start somewhere, and school is like the best place to do that.