When Mara Cijulus moved from Haiti with her family to Palm Beach County in 2004, she did not speak English, but she had a vision of herself going to college and becoming a nurse.
At 17 years old and new to the U.S., she struggled through Palm Beach Gardens High School before graduating in 2006.
“High school was really rough,’’ said Cijulus, now 31 and a charge nurse at an assisted living facility in Palm Beach County, who is set to receive her Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree from PBSC May 8. “I would cry going to high school because I could not communicate with other people. I was trying to be around people who speak Creole just to be able to talk to them or ask questions.”
After high school, she began preparing for the required tests to get into the Practical Nursing program at PBSC, but the language barrier remained her stumbling block. She struggled to pass even the Test of Adult Basic Education. Then her father, who had brought Cijulus, her two younger brothers and mom to join him in Palm Beach County for a better life, died in 2008. She almost gave up. “I spent two years trying to pass the TABE,’’ she said. “I stopped for a while, and I didn’t want to go back.”
However, two employees in the Vocational Preparatory Instruction Lab at PBSC encouraged her to return to campus and try again. “They reached out to me because, if not, I would not be where I am now. They kept calling me and telling me to come back,’’ she said of former PBSC employee Bette Miller and Debra-Ann Singleton, PBSC’s learning and professional development manager in Human Resources who then was a workforce assessment advisor in the VPI Lab.
Cijulus is receiving her fourth diploma from PBSC. She is among more than 3,200 PBSC graduates who will earn degrees and certificates during two ceremonies at 9:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. at the Palm Beach County Convention Center. The ceremonies will be streamed live at www.palmbeachstate.edu. Because of her commitment to learning English and doing well in school, she already earned a Practical Nursing certificate (2013), an Associate in Arts degree (2015) and an Associate in Science degree in Nursing (2017) from PBSC. She passed the state licensing exams to become a practical nurse and registered nurse on the first attempts.
“The library was my best friend,” Cijulus said. “I would spend all day there. I learned to speak mostly from watching the news. I read books and tried to understand.”
Cijulus, the first in her family to graduate high school and college, said she considered going to the Adult Education Center to learn English before pursuing her studies at PBSC, but she changed her mind.
“Back home I had that dream of going to college. I saw the college experience in my head,’’ she said. “I said ‘no, I want to go to college like everyone else.’ I felt all my friends were going to college, but I couldn’t because I didn’t speak the language. But I said to myself I’m going to try to get started at PBSC in the LPN or Medical Assisting program and then move up. Getting there was harder than I thought.”
Cijulus now plans to pursue the BSN to Doctor of Nursing Program at Florida Atlantic University and become a family nurse practitioner.
Her advice to students is to “push through. Talk to the teacher. Talk to the professors. Find someone who wants to listen to you and always go back to the person for advice. If I hadn’t listened to Debra, I would not be where I am today. I thank God for these teachers. They’re the ones that made it happen for me.”
Singleton said the credit goes to Cijulus. “Mara is the epitome of what our students can accomplish when they are willing to work hard and when the right opportunities and resources are presented to them.”
For more information about PBSC health science programs, visit www.palmbeachstate.edu/programs/healthscience.