Editor’s note: This story is part of a series looking at Arizona’s essential workers and is funded by the Solutions Journalism Network. Arizona Luminaria was selected as one of the newsrooms to participate in SJN’s Labor Cohort.

Cynthia Villanueva is on lunch break from her new job at Bowman Consulting in Tucson, where she drafts engineering plans as a computer-aided design specialist. Sitting in a local pizza joint, she leans back and remembers the long period of uncertainty she went through after graduating high school. Having a stable career, and even having lunch, were not given for the 23-year old, who spent a few months living out of her car.

In 2019, she was newly graduated from high school, low on funds, scraping together what part-time work she could find, and didn’t have the time to focus on honing school applications or searching for scholarships. But she was driven, and knew she wanted to find a good career — something that would both support and fulfill her. 

She applied to Pima Community College and the University of Arizona, was accepted into both schools, and decided on Pima, mostly because it was more affordable. 

Cynthia worried about balancing work and the demands of school. She spent some time poking around Pima’s list of degrees, Googling things like “day in the life of an accountant.” Then CAD, or computer-aided design, caught her eye. She’d always been creative, loved drawing and designing, and thought the major could be a fit. 

Ambition and reality, however, don’t always line up. By her second semester, with funds increasingly tight, Cynthia was unhoused, living with her boyfriend in her old Toyota Corolla and struggling to focus on school.

Many students like Cynthia need more than just access to tuition reduction or scholarship money to get through degree programs. The safety net that caught Cynthia, and allowed her to stay in school, was JobPath. A Tucson-based program that provides money, training, and — crucially — one-on-one coaching that helps with soft skills and resumes for students in degree programs who are living at or below the poverty level.

Cynthia Villanueva works on a project in her cubicle at Bowman Consulting where she is a computer-aided design (CAD) specialist on Friday, Dec. 9 in Tucson, Ariz. Credit: Michael McKisson

Nearly 23,000 economically disadvantaged high school graduates completed no post-secondary education in 2015, according to a 2021 Arizona Board of Regents report. Overall, the same year, 49,000 high school graduates in Arizona did not continue with higher education. That means students in the low-income group make up nearly half of the state’s population of young people without post-secondary education. For the report, economically disadvantaged is defined as students whose family income is 185% of the federal poverty level. 

These socioeconomic hardships have consequences: Only about 3,000 economically disadvantaged students were able to attain a bachelor’s degree in 2015. 

As the pandemic began in 2020, less than half – 46.3% − of Arizona’s high school graduates enrolled in a two- or four-year college, according to the same report. The national college enrollment rate for high school graduates in 2019 was 66%. Without higher education, many of those students will be joining the ranks of the “working poor,” those putting in the hours on the clock, but not taking home enough wages to maintain a basic sense of security or to pay for things like more schooling. 

JobPath seeks to help break people out of that ensnaring cycle: not earning enough to pay for more education so they can earn more. And working hard at a low-wage job that barely pays their bills and leaves little time to invest in studies.

Kat Kohlman is another JobPath alumna, currently working as a dental hygienist at Sabino Smiles Dentistry. She’s 30 and graduated from Pima County Community College’s dental hygiene program in May of 2022. 

Going to school later than many of her peers, Kat had been working full-time for years — mostly in hospitals and urgent care centers — and had long been supporting herself. During her first semester of the program, she was working four days a week at Starbucks on top of attending school five, sometimes five-and-a-half days a week.

Some days, Kat’s schedule started at 3:30 in the morning, when she would put in a few hours steaming milk and pouring coffee until her classes started at 9 a.m. Her clinics could last until 10 p.m., which made for exhausting weeks. 

On top of help with tuition, JobPath also paid for specialty glasses Kat needed for work, as well as the hygiene kit. And when she finished school, the program paid the fees for her board exams, which ran to nearly $3,000. But it wasn’t just money, Kat explains. She liked JobPath’s required monthly check-ins: “They made sure we felt supported. It was emotional as well as financial backing they gave us.” 

JobPath is funded by both the government and private sector, focusing on two-year or less training programs. Originally founded by the Pima County Interfaith Council in 1998, the organization now gets funds from sources as diverse as Pima County and the American Rescue Plan, the 2021 federal stimulus package. 

JobPath works primarily with Pima Community College, Cochise College, Arizona College of Nursing, and a few other vocational schools — the HDS Truck Driving Institute and Independent Electrical Contractors program — and is in the process of expanding to other southern Arizona communities. Without much advertising, they present themselves to incoming students at orientation programs and by word of mouth, which is how Cynthia first heard about it. 

“I remember hearing this girl telling me about this place called JobPath that helps people,” Cynthia says. “Which is really, really nice, especially for what I was dealing with, because I was homeless at one point, and needed a hand.”

JobPath works hard to make it as easy as possible for students to access that hand. They have an office and a team of student success coaches, but don’t make students be there physically. They can attend in person if they want, but the only requirement is a monthly check-in.   

Depending on a student’s needs, JobPath dishes out advice, mentorship, training, encouragement, as well as dollars to help overcome many of the impediments that keep especially non–traditional college students from finishing school and finding jobs. Non-traditional higher education students include people not coming directly from high school, the first in their family to attend higher-education institutions, people managing school and caring for children, people with mental health challenges, or those who can’t afford to attend classes full time. 

With complicated application systems, a labyrinthine financial aid process, the need to pick classes and track down advisors or seek assistance for special needs, schools aren’t exactly designed to make things easy for such students.

Carmen Jones is JobPath’s workforce readiness manager. She says that money and “soft skills” — such as having a conversation with a boss, or a client, writing a formal email, etc. — are some of the biggest barriers for students to get through school and land decent jobs.

Aviation technology students have to be on campus almost 40 hours a week, making another job on top of that difficult. Credit: Courtesy of JobPath

The careers JobPath sets up for its students are typically in nursing, trucking, dental hygiene, and aviation technology — all of which are in high demand in and around Tucson. JobPath focuses on these fields because they offer “family-sustaining wages,” says Christine Hill, JobPath’s director of development. 

But before approaching the higher-skills job market, most JobPath students are already working hard to just get through the week.

“The majority of our students are in crisis literally all the time,” Carmen says. They are struggling to make rent, find childcare, not lose their day jobs or cars, and put food on the table. All of which can make it hard to afford and focus on schooling that will set them on a path to a job with better wages and benefits for themselves and their family.

Christine gave the example of students studying to become dental hygienists. Though they may come out of the program earning as much as $60,000, as a starting salary, they have to pay not only tuition to get there, but also fork over about $6,000 for a dental hygienist kit required for their school. That’s prohibitively expensive for nearly all of JobPath’s students.

Kat is just a few months into her job at Sabino Smiles. She loves her work, and thinks she would have found herself eventually, but “it would have been extremely difficult without JobPath,” she says. 

“They really try to make sure you’re successful,” she says.

What a few dollars can do

In those particularly hard months when she was unhoused, Cynthia was moving her vehicle around, from park to park, looking for the safest spot to spend the night. 

She’d go to Food City to buy basics: cheap frozen meat or whatever else was on sale. She and her boyfriend would cook on a camp stove, or sometimes over an open fire at Silverbell Lake on Tucson’s west side.

Despite the hardships, Cynthia says, “I knew I was going to get over it. I just needed to get out.”

She would get snacks at JobPath’s food pantry, but that wasn’t the only way they cared for her. Having them check in with her was a big help.

Cynthia Villanueva found JobPath to help her get through school and now she’s a computer-aided design (CAD) specialist at Bowman Consulting in Tucson. Credit: Michael McKisson

“If I hadn’t found JobPath I don’t know where my life would have been,” Cynthia says. 

Knowing that she would have some help with groceries and gas was enough to let her concentrate on paying rent again and putting in the hours to study. She was soon back on her feet.

The amount of money JobPath will dole out to a student is based on household income, number of dependents, and the cost of the program of study, up to about $5,000 per year. A student success coach helps clients create a financial plan for the academic year that outlines how much money they’ll receive. 

One of the principal strengths of JobPath is that the funding they provide isn’t just for educational needs. Students can use it for gas, childcare, rent, bills, auto insurance, basic supplies, and more. As Krystle Carrero, a student success coach, puts it, “We’re the most flexible, kindest program.”

That’s particularly useful for aviation technology students. The Pima Community College program requires students to be on campus for about 40 hours a week, which makes having a job on top of that, and fulfilling basic responsibilities, almost impossible. 

In Cynthia’s last year of JobPath, she received less than $900 of support money, which wasn’t a lot, but was “enough to make a big difference,” Cynthia says. When you’re up against the edge, sometimes counting pennies towards your next meal, just a little extra can be enough to get you through, she explained.

A $900 check, or even significantly more than that, is a welcome help, but doesn’t cover tuition, childcare, insurance, rent, and all of life’s expensive miscellany. For those putting in 40-plus hours a week into school, especially if the student has a family to support, they still need to hustle, or find other scholarships or support. Especially with booming housing costs and inflation, JobPath is not a panacea to correct society’s unequal opportunity offerings, but it can be a first step out of poverty.

The data on JobPath students shows many students have been through a lot and can accomplish a lot for themselves once they have some support to narrow the equity gap in meeting basic needs vital for anyone working for an education and a better job. 

​​On average over the past five years, 90% of JobPath students graduate from their program, according to statistics shared with Arizona Luminaria. In Fiscal Year 2022, that number reached 95%.

About 85% get a job in their field within six months of graduation. JobPath graduates increase their annual salaries by over $42,000 compared to pre-training wages. Most of them also have health insurance and paid time off. Time off is especially important for the nearly 50% of JobPath students who are raising young children.

‘We want to understand students’

To be eligible to receive help from JobPath, students must be at or below the official poverty level, be enrolled or accepted into a college or vocational program, and be an Arizona resident. Students with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status are able to apply and enroll, but their funding comes from private rather than government sources.

The passage of Proposition 308, which allows undocumented students who have graduated from high school in Arizona to access in-state tuition rates, will allow JobPath to help more DACA students access the education they want.

Students who don’t qualify, or are not quite ready for the program, aren’t simply turned away. Coaches typically refer them to some other service provider. But Maria Benavidez, a workforce readiness coach, says, “We don’t just refer to refer.”

If a student begins to fall through the cracks or has needs that JobPath can’t provide, they brainstorm and put their heads together. 

“We never say no without some other resources to offer, and it’s rare we say no,” Maria says.

“We try to be relational rather than transactional,” Krystle explains.

That means that the conversation between coach and student starts generally. What goals do their students have? Why did they decide to go to school? Why have they picked the career they’re pursuing? 

“We know what to listen for, and know how to generally probe even as we build rapport,” Andres Chavez, one of the coaches, says.

Coaches want to help the students be strategic with the funding. They want to know if they have stable housing, childcare support or backup, any mental health or addiction challenges. “We start organically, with open-minded questions. We want to figure out where they’re at,” Andres says.

“We want to understand students’ full picture of what may or may not be able to help them complete their program,” Ginette Roth, another coach, says.

That’s important because, though JobPath is focused on education and employment, a host of other societal problems that aren’t the students’ fault can get in the way.

Ginette says the first thing she would want that’s beyond JobPath’s reach is more affordable housing. Many of their students are housing insecure, some living with abusive partners or just a month away from possibly being on the street.

Affordable housing is also long-sought and long-unmet issue for Arizona, which has seen skyrocketing real estate costs. The more students have stable lives and their basic needs are met  — a roof over their heads and not living paycheck to paycheck  — the more they can concentrate on their studies and completing an educational program aimed at increasing their living wages.

“With already high housing costs still rising, more students may be limited in what they can afford to pay for, including school,” Ginette says.

Starting at the bottom

JobPath students are dealing with an education system that is, in many ways, failing. 

Many incoming students don’t necessarily come to them even knowing how to study. Primary and secondary education in the U.S. hasn’t trained everybody or everybody well enough to get through higher education. And compared to other states, Arizona consistently ranks at the bottom in terms of quality of education. By some measures it has the worst public education system in the country.

JobPath uses a subjective approach to address some of the basic hurdles. They don’t have time to handhold every student every step of their way, but they do their best to help students realize their own strengths and areas that need improvement. Krystle, who studied education, says she talks through different types of learning processes with receptive students, helping them learn what kind of learners they are.  

But even simpler forms of encouragement can be crucial. “Following up with them after the test. Talking to them before, giving them that little pep talk. It can all make a big difference,” Andres says.

JobPath grad Cynthia Villanueva works on a project in her cubicle at Bowman Consulting where she is computer-aided design (CAD) specialist on Friday, Dec. 9 in Tucson, Ariz. Credit: Michael McKisson

Scrambling, rising to success

Unlike more privileged college graduates, JobPath students don’t need an introduction into the real world — they’ve been living, suffering, overcoming and working it for years.

When Cynthia got closer to graduation in the spring of 2022 — by then she was back in stable housing — she was working two jobs, at Lenscrafters and Lowe’s, and struggling to find the time to search for jobs or improve her resume. 

That’s when, again, Carmen stepped in. JobPath sticks with students for six months after graduation. “This helps students cover certification/licensing exams, rent/mortgage, etc. during the transition time between school and work until they get on their feet,” Christine Hill says.

“When Carmen switched up my resume, I was shocked at how many results I got,” Cynthia says of going out on the job market. Carmen also found some jobs that might have been a good match for Cynthia, even reaching out to some potential employers on her behalf.

But Cynthia’s current job, at Bowman Consulting, where she is a CAD specialist, she found herself.

That’s exactly what JobPath wants to see, Carmen says. 

“We help them over the impediments,” she says. A lot of what they do at JobPath, Maria says, is “helping them recognize the skills they already have.”

Cynthia is now into her third month at Bowman, and she’s no longer the most junior employee. She says she’s loyal and looking forward to staying in her job, rising in the ranks, seeing where her career might take her. 

When she was a cashier at Lowe’s and working at Lenscrafters, she would often bring her laptop to work to study there. She struggled to get enough sleep, feed herself, see her family, or get to relax during holidays — some of the most elemental things to be and feel human. 

“Ever since I got this position though with Bowman, I heavily enjoy having a routine,” she says. “I enjoy getting off work at a certain time and I’ve been able to spark my hobbies up again such as dancing, playing piano, and drawing.”

With the stability offered by a degree and a career, Cynthia says she’s been able to live, not just survive.

John Washington

John Washington is an investigative journalist based in Tucson with a focus on immigration and borders, as well as criminal justice and literature. His first book, "The Dispossessed: A Story of Asylum...