A product of her environment.
That was exactly what Yani Webster did not want to be, and just what she was in danger of becoming.
Yani was born in Oakland and has lived all but a short period of her life in the Bay Area. Her family was forced to move around frequently because of many family issues and financial hardships.
“Throughout my teenage years,” Yani said, “I was involved in many fights. Between my biological father’s absence from my life and my mother’s struggle with mental illness, there was no one for me to communicate my animosity to, and that contributed to my resorting to violence. Unleashing my anger on someone was the only way I knew how to heal my own pain. Though far from being right, these actions were what I’d become accustomed to.”
By age 15, Yani was expelled from school for fighting, and unfortunately, she was arrested. “This was definitely a wake-up call for me,” she said. “Society labeled me a ‘product of my environment,’ and I knew it was only a matter of time before it would happen again, unless I made a change for the better.
“My father is currently serving a life sentence in a federal institution in Arizona,” she continued, “and my mother was laid off from her job because she was unable to type as a result of carpal tunnel syndrome and arthritis. Our lack of income caused my mother to miss payments on the mortgage, so our house in Richmond went into foreclosure. Soon after that, my mother had her first nervous breakdown. By spring 2008 she was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and was admitted into the psychiatric ward of Contra Costa Regional Medical Center.
“These incidents left me, at only 17 years old, with the responsibility of taking care of my younger sister, Kaloni,” Yani said. “With my father physically out of my life and my mother mentally gone, I was left with no real guidance and no financial support.” As a result, she and her sister moved in with their aunt in Manteca, and Yani managed to graduate from Calla High School there in 2008.
“The stress of providing for a child, worrying about my parents, and trying to begin my college education became overwhelming,” Yani said. “I decided to run away from home.”
Yani moved in with her boyfriend in Martinez, who works full time as a nursing assistant, and in the fall of 2008, she enrolled at Diablo Valley College. “DVC has great faculty members who want to see their students succeed,” she said. “And it has a high transfer rate.”
She heard about the EOPS program through a student on campus, she researched it online, and got into the program. “It has been a tremendous help, particularly the assistance with book vouchers and academic advising,” she said.
After Yani had been attending DVC for a few semesters, one of her closest friends was killed in a car accident.
“I began to contemplate whether getting an education and good grades were things I had the strength to do,” she admitted, “so I took some time off to find the strength within myself to continue the journey I had begun.” After taking the summer off, Yani returned to school in the fall and said “I’ve never looked back since then.”
Over the last few years, Yani said, “I have changed my life completely around. I am no longer using anger as an outlet for solving my issues, nor am I blaming my family for the obstacles I faced at such a young age. I currently support myself by working three jobs through federal Work Study, and although working on campus is rewarding, it can also be challenging trying to maintain grades as a full-time student.”
Yani works as a Student Ambassador for DVC, giving presentations on the benefits of attending college, assisting with application workshops at high schools, and giving campus tours. She also helps prospective, current, and new students with the DVC enrollment process.
“If I’m not working as a Student Ambassador,” she said, “in the same office, I work as an Information Center student assistant to help students with class registration and answer general questions about DVC. Then, as a Peer Advisor, I help students with completing the requirements to continue receiving assistance from the EOPS program. Through each of these positions I get to help students, which is something I have a deep passion for. I get to share my story with others and prove to them anything is possible with hard work and ambition.”
Yani is also a member of Alpha Gamma Sigma, the Honor Society, and recently was awarded a Kennedy-King scholarship, which she said will help tremendously with her education. She plans to transfer in the spring of 2012 to either CSU-East Bay or San Francisco State University, where she will major in sociology. She also hopes to continue beyond that by pursuing a master’s degree in either social work or counseling. “My ultimate career goal is to become a counselor so I can help others follow their dreams as I did,” she said. “I truly enjoy helping others– and I want to be the best role model for my sister Kaloni that I possibly can be.”