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Sarina Alford

By Richard Burnett

She set out at dawn on her highway marathon, a 2,400-mile journey to a new life. With her three-year-old daughter as copilot, Sarina Alford covered the continent-long trail in three days — a feat that most travelers would never tackle. Her destination: Beacon College, Florida.

From suburban San Diego to Leesburg, Alford was driven by the hope of a college education and a career in her future. It was something that had seemed all but impossible earlier in her life as she wrestled with dyslexia and other learning issues. Last year, however, her mother found Beacon online and shared what she found with Alford.

“I got really, really interested in what I was seeing,” Alford said. “I thought to myself how great would it be if I could have the opportunity to get an education with others like me in a curriculum for people like me. I kept finding out more and more. It was like ‘oh my gosh, I want this! I need this!’”

Soon, the doors began to open for her. She applied and was accepted to the college. She landed a scholarship and other financial aid. And, with her savings and help from her parents, she cobbled together enough money to move across country, with her young daughter Nyah in tow. She began classes at Beacon in January.

Today, the transformation has been dramatic for the 23-year-old divorced, single mother. Once a security officer for the San Diego Zoo, she now is working on a degree in psychology, with a minor in criminal justice, while juggling six classes, homework, motherhood and part-time work as an apartment complex security guard.

“I loved the work I did in security at the zoo,” she said. “But it was more of a stepping stone job than an actual career. I knew I wanted to do something bigger and better. Plus, I wanted to provide more for my daughter. I had to choose between just sitting around feeling sorry for myself or following my hopes and dreams. So I did something about it, and I’m really proud of myself that I went for it.”

Pursuing a law enforcement career

Alford remembers nearly a decade ago, when a serial killer terrorized Southern California, as police throughout the region from Los Angeles to San Diego launched a massive manhunt to catch the killer. As a teenager, Alford felt the tension and fear as it gripped her neighborhood, yet she was also galvanized by law enforcement’s commitment to protect people from harm.

By the time police found the killer Christopher Dorner and killed him in a shootout on Feb. 12, 2013, Alford felt she had found her calling.

“We all saw everything on the news, how all the police were going city to city looking for this guy,” she said. “I really got involved in following it, and I knew then what I wanted to do. I wanted to do what the police were doing, finding bad guys and stopping them from hurting others. That has stayed with me to this day.”

Demonstrating navigation skills

Sarina and child Only months into her Beacon career, Alford’s savviness, tenacity and maturity have already made a strong impression on the faculty and other students, said Dr. Patricia Konovalov, an associate professor who teaches her in the foundational Learning Essentials class.

Through classes like Learning Essentials, Beacon seeks to help students not only with academic skills, but also self-discovery and how to successfully navigate their own lives — a skill that 

Alford has already demonstrated she has, Konovalov said.

“For Sarina, her story shows she has already navigated many adult responsibilities for many years,” she said. “And the very fact that she navigated herself across the country, with her child, shows her maturity at this stage of her life. The other students see that. They see someone living out what we talk about in class, and they really respect her for that.

“She has also already identified what motivates her and the place in her life where she wants to be,” Konovalov added. “She has gained self-awareness. She believes in herself and she has embraced the idea of helping others too. She’s embraced all those things and is living them. That’s Sarina, that’s who she is.”