A Phoenix from the Ashes, Student Barbara Ayarza Rises from Difficult Past

TRiO Honoree Award Night, Ayarza on stage

TRiO Honoree Award Night, Ayarza on stage

By Eleni Parashos

Barbara Ayarza never thought her life would turn out the way it did. In one fated moment of intervention she was connected with TRiO, a federally-funded program that provides resources and mentors for students who want to go to college. That set her life on a new path from the past of abuse, hardship and homelessness to her future of education, aspirations and happiness.

Ayarza was recognized at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas’ 2014 TRiO Day banquet at the Rio Hotel and Casino on Feb. 22. The annual event was held to honor students who have overcome tremendous obstacles and excelled in their educations. The night was one Ayarza won’t forget.

Ayarza shared her story from the stage to an audience of more than a thousand. Some listeners began to shed tears as they learned of the tremendous hurdles she conquered.

A little over four decades ago Ayarza was born in Southern California to her 19-year-old mother and a father she would never meet. Her mother ultimately married Ayarza’s stepfather, an African-American man with daughters of his own.

As a child Ayarza was an avid reader, interested in science and art, although she struggled to excel in the classroom. “I had ADD really bad,” Ayarza said. “My mind was like a sports book. I would try to focus, but it felt like I had 25 different television sets going off in my head at full blast.”

High school was even harder. Those were the years where she began to disconnect from her education entirely. Ayarza detailed her high school as a place where it was all too common for teenage girls to become young mothers and teenage boys to end up in jail.

By her senior year, Ayarza had dropped out of school and shortly after at the age of 18, she became pregnant with her fist son.

“I felt out of control when I found out,” Ayarza said. “I felt like my life was having me. I used to pride myself on being able to make it out of my high school as one of the few people that wasn’t a mother.”

Determined to raise her son on her own, Ayarza moved out of her family’s house and took a job as a waitress. Four years later after what she calls a string of bad relationships, she became pregnant with her second child.

During this pregnancy Ayarza’s mother was diagnosed with cancer and it was after her death that Ayarza began to develop an emotional pattern. When someone died, she would attach herself to a man who she hoped would save her.

“I was always attracted to the lost puppies,” she said. “Every time something bad would happen—if I lost someone—I would find myself with a man that I thought could sweep me off my feet and be my knight in shining armor.” Ayarza was married twice to two men who were unable to fill that position.

Her first husband, father of her third and fourth children, became extremely controlling and abusive early on. “He definitely made sure there was a very tight hold on me. He alienated me from all my friends, family, everyone,” Ayarza said.

After giving birth to her fourth child, Ayarza sought protection in a battered-woman’s shelter. “It was the moment that was probably the lowest point in my life,” she said. “I was sitting there, and I just looked so pathetic. I just thought, ‘This is what’s happened to you. This is what you’ve become, a battered wife with four small children. This is where your story ends up.’”

However, Ayarza’s journey was far from over.

Once she was able to secure a living situation away from her husband, Ayarza reconnected with a man she knew since childhood. It was a short-lived reunion as she learned of his criminal past. “He was a wanted man … after he was taken to jail I found out I was pregnant,” Ayarza said.

The then mother of five moved west for opportunity and found herself in Las Vegas where she met her second husband and father of her sixth child. He is a man Ayarza describes as a, “Hardcore gambling addict who would come and go for weeks at a time.” On his last return to his family, Ayarza’s husband went on a gambling binge so immense that it cost Ayarza her home.

Without a job or place to live, Ayarza was forced to move into a tiny apartment and rely on unemployment checks and food stamps; however, a stroke of fortune intervened when she received a small inheritance from her grandfather.

It was at that moment that Ayarza asked herself, “Now what do I do?” Her son responded with an answer that would foreshadow the next chapter of his mother’s life. “Well you know, you lost everything, now you can pretty much do anything,” he said.

Ayarza, ambitious to make a change, set her sights on college. Unsure of where to start she contacted the TRiO program at UNLV. The program assisted her in the completion of her GED and application to the College of Southern Nevada, and a few months later Ayarza was enrolled in her first-ever semester of college.

“We were in orientation and I could see fear and anxiety on Barbara’s face,” said Shellie Keller, CSN’s director of tutorial services and Ayarza’s personal mentor. “But I also could sense through her questions that she really cared. She really wanted to change her life.”

Ayarza’s first semester of college was full of self-discovery. “I am a self-learner. I didn’t realize until I got to college that I had really been educating myself the whole time. I never stopped learning.”

A psychology major graduating from CSN in May, Ayarza is looking forward to her future as a student at UNLV. She plans to continue her education after that into a master’s program. She is thinking about becoming a counselor.

When reflecting on how far she’s come, she said, “My life could have gone so wrong and it did in many ways. I feel really confident that things will continue to go in the direction that they are going. I’m a different person now and I’m learning how to have good in my life for the first time.”

Ayarza’s son Brian Parker, also a psychology major at CSN, loves going to college at the same time as his mom. “She’s the first one I call, not only as a mother but as a fellow student and mentor,” Parker said. “I take so much pride in being her son.”

“Barbara does not allow anything to get in the way of the educational goals she has set for herself,” said Tony Talavera, Ayarza’s TRiO advisor at CSN. “I have witnessed her overcome obstacles that would have made others not even begin their educational journey.”

Peggy Marlow, UNLV’s TRiO adult education services director, said Ayarza is an inspiration. Many others agree.

When asked how she feels about the future, Ayarza responded with a word that also seems to encompass her ever-determining spirit: victorious. “I feel victorious,” Ayarza said.

Ayarza with her six children

Ayarza with her six children

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