When I first met Mary, I was captivated by her cheerful energy. She is vibrant, articulate, and has the gift of being able to listen as intensely as she speaks. She is quick to smile and laugh, and evokes the same in others.
Perhaps if I’d had a teacher like Mary, I wouldn’t have felt like a such a underdog when I graduated from high school and my only option for affordable post-secondary education was community college—a place, I thought, for losers. Mary knows that feeling. She, too, was not afforded the luxury of going directly from high school to a four-year university. However, she grew to appreciate how success at community college offered her the gateway to a becoming a teacher, a career that she loves.
Most of Mary’s high school friends were teachers’ kids. When they graduated from Fort Bragg High in 1995, they were headed to four-year colleges. “Since I didn’t have the money to do that, I went to community college,” she said. “I felt I wasn’t as good as they were.”
She decided to pursue some sort of technical training where she could get in, get out, and make a living wage. For the 18-year old Mary, that decision led her to the dental hygienist program at Sacramento City College.
While in Sacramento, she often visited her best friend at Chico State. “I loved being on that campus. It made me realize that I really wanted a four-year degree. The following year, I went to Sierra Community College in Rocklin. I liked it better than Sac City, mainly because there was a much younger crowd.” She eventually transferred to Chico State.
Mary financed her education through a combination of working, help from her family, grants, and student loans. “I was a retail clerk at a western wear store in Sacramento. In Chico, I did filing for an attorney. During the summers, I came home and worked fulltime. One summer I was a file clerk at the Ten Mile Court where I made a whopping $4.15 an hour.” The former 4-H kid graduated from Chico State in 2001 with a degree in Ag Science with an emphasis in education.
While pursuing her degree, her dream was to return to the coast to teach Ag Science. Her boyfriend, John Iversen, lived in Mendocino and worked for his family’s logging business. During her final year in college, she applied for a position to teach Ag Science at Fort Bragg High School through Mendocino County’s Regional Occupational Program (ROP).
Was it weird to return as a teacher to her alma mater? “Not really. It took me a while to call my former teachers by their first names. For my first staff yearbook picture, the photographer asked me what grade I was in.” She laughed.
Mary and John married in December 2003. “When you marry a logger, you have to have your wedding in the winter if you want time to take a honeymoon.”
Two years later, she was pregnant with her first child and felt her schedule required too much time away from home. “I started transitioning out of ROP by teaching the Achievement Via Individual Determination [AVID] program and eventually taught health. I now teach a freshman seminar which is health one semester and college and career success the second semester.” Every incoming freshman is enrolled in these classes. “If you’re 32 or younger, I’ve probably taught you.”
The Iversens live in Mendocino where John attended school. Son Alex was born in 2006 and daughter Avery in 2009. Mary feels motherhood allowed her to become a better teacher. She protects each student as the child of someone who loves them very much.
As her children approached school age, she and John contemplated where to send them. Mary entertained the fantasy that she would get a job at the Mendocino Middle School. “I could live and work in Mendocino and the kids could go to school there.” She announced she would give the high school one more year. “A week later, I realized how much I love teaching at the high school. I decided I’d be there forever.” Alex and Avery both attend Fort Bragg schools.
Mary finds students still feel shame about going to community college. She works to take away the stigma of a four-year only option. “I tell students to choose what they want to do and take the path that will get them there—whether that be an apprenticeship at Fort Bragg Electric, going to a tech school, or becoming a doctor.” Community college can be an excellent place to start. The point is to keep the end goal in mind.
Mary has been able to formalize her beliefs through teaching classes that focus on college and career success. “The curriculum is called ‘Get Focused, Stay Focused.’ I work with freshmen to help them develop life skills, like creating a budget. I help them explore their aptitudes, interests, and passions. What do you value—fame, money, family? During this semester, they are dually enrolled in a class through Mendocino College.” Each subsequent year, students are again exposed to these concepts through a three-week course. This process deepens their insights into who they want to become, and culminates in a formal senior project where they research career choices and report their findings.
Mary views her students as her clients. “I want my classroom to be an inviting place where they feel comfortable. People often say that the décor makes it look like a party.
“When I walk through the doors of the school, I’m happy. Even if I won the lottery, I would keep my job. I have a fulfilling life as a teacher, which also gives me time to be fulfilled as a mom. I feel at home at Fort Bragg High, it’s comforting. I have great colleagues who love their jobs, work hard, and are dedicated to kids. We work well as a team.”
She credits two teachers in particular with mentoring her in her early years. “During my first week, Cindy Rusert gave me a lesson planning sheet that I continue to use to this day. Mary Makela and I bonded over our shared passion for teaching. She brought the ‘Get Focused, Stay Focused’ program to the school.”
Mary feels fortunate to have a career where she’s given the opportunity to encourage the youth of our community to think about their futures and explore a variety of scenarios. Lucky for them to have a teacher with such enthusiasm, a stellar example of how community college can start a person on the path to success.