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Ilene Villanueva has always wanted to work in the medical field. She said even as a child, people would seek her out for help translating or other tasks when she would go to doctor appointments or the emergency room.
Her hopes of becoming a doctor seemed out of reach when she became a mother at a young age and was unable to finish high school. She worked for a catering service and at a pharmacy in New York before moving to New Jersey. She found herself in a situation where her landlord only wanted rent payments in cash and he wouldn’t provide a lease. He changed the locks and she ended up homeless with her children.
Villanueva then found Harmony House, New Community’s transitional housing facility for homeless families. She spent time there in 2017 and 2018 before moving to permanent housing. Harmony House employees informed her that New Community Career & Technical Institute (NCCTI) offered a High School Equivalency (HSE) program, which was conveniently located right next door. She took advantage of the opportunity and earned her GED in 2018.
While in the HSE program, Villanueva learned about the accredited post-secondary medical programs NCCTI offered. She decided to enroll in the Medical Assistant Clinical (MAC) program to put herself on the path to a career.
The recent death of Villanueva’s father renewed her interest in a medical career.
“I thought, I really want to go into the medical field so that I can be able to be one person to change it, to be there for the people,” she said.
She completed the MAC program in 2020 and began working full-time at University Hospital in April of this year as an ambulatory care technician. In that role, she takes patients’ vitals; provides customer service to patients; schedules, cancels and reminds patients about appointments; and discharges patients.
Villanueva said she enjoys the first job of her medical career.
“I’ve gotten way farther than other people that have been working there for years. And that’s all thanks to the school because they taught me,” she said.
At age 29, Villanueva hopes to continue her education and become a registered nurse.
Her journey shows how NCCTI can serve as a bridge to get students where they ultimately want to be.
“NCCTI provides the stepping stones for students to create a foundational layer for them to expand upon or build up from,” said NCCTI Director Dr. Sylvia McCray. “The work we do here is to blow life back into a dead dream or a buried goal. We know the way to improve one’s life and circumstances begins with education and training. That is our main goal. Our mission is to push students so they can see what we see: opportunity, growth and choice for themselves.”
Odette Phillip was one of Villanueva’s HSE instructors who helped her earn her GED.
“At first, it was a challenge for her in terms of attendance due to the fact that she had limited support out of school. She pushed through this by staying after classes when she could to catch up on missed work. Ilene did her best and I admire her determination,” Phillip said. “I am really proud of her achievements thus far.”
Villanueva said Phillip, her MAC instructor and everyone else she encountered at New Community helped her.
“They actually cared and said I see what you’re going through. I want to be here. I’m open ears and open hands and open information. Everything they could think of, they would always push me to do it,” Villanueva said. “They’ve been there for me like you couldn’t imagine. At my lowest, they were there. They didn’t judge me. And they helped me.”
In addition to being happy about going to school and starting a career she’s passionate about, Villanueva is proud to be a good role model for her four children.
“My kids have seen the steps I’ve been taking so they’ve been trying to do the same thing,” she said. “So everybody’s been coming home with honor roll certificates.”