“Where I’m from, they say there’s only two ways to truly make it out, and that’s either jail or a casket,” said Kyla Stephens, a dental assistant student at UEI College in Gardena. She is referring to South Los Angeles, historically known as “South-Central,” where the statistics for African American youth paint a dismal picture. According to an analysis by The Sentencing Project, black teens in South Los Angeles are four times as likely to be arrested as their white peers. Stephens is one of them.
She was caught shoplifting and arrested. It could have sent her down the path of becoming another statistic, but she found a second chance at UEI College.
“One mistake turned into a bigger mistake for me, but today I’m doing great thanks to UEI College. School has definitely helped steer me back on the right path,” Stephens said. “I know now that a lot of my bad decisions were influenced by running with the wrong crowd.”
“I’ve always known that I am going to be great, so when I did fall short, it took a big toll on me and my mother. It took a lot to get back to where I belong – here in school. I’m in the process of rebuilding myself,” she added.
That commitment to a brighter future drives Stephens to do her best every day, and it is reflected in her 4.0 GPA.
When UEI College announced the Be the Change Scholarship, it caught Stephens’ attention and she decided to share her own personal story in an essay. Her experience with the criminal justice system exposed Stephens to the inequity that African Americans face, and the stereotypes.
“The justice system painted a disgusting picture of me and I saw how easy it was to be written off as another delinquent based solely on my background; a young black girl, daughter of a single mom with little to no education,” Stephens wrote in her essay. “It was almost like they wanted to throw me in a hole and if I made it out of that hole, they wanted to make it easy to throw me back in.”
The experience created a strong resolve for Stephens to demonstrate that one mistake does not define the rest of your life. “I am committed to myself and my peers. I want to be living proof that you can fail and still reach victory with determination,” she wrote.
More than 195 students submitted entries for the inaugural Be the Change Scholarship, launched in support and solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. The scholarship committee selected Stephens as the 2020 recipient.
“UEI is committed to supporting racial equality. We stand with the African American community in the push for social justice. With this scholarship we seek to honor an individual who has the passion, drive, and commitment to be an agent of change,” said Dr. Fardad Fateri, President and CEO. “Kyla is certainly worthy, and the scholarship committee was deeply moved by her essay.”
“Kyla’s perseverance has inspired the entire Gardena campus community,” said UEI Gardena Executive Director Tim Gramling. “She is a dedicated, focused student who sets a positive example for others. She is determined to be successful, and she has overcome numerous obstacles. I was thrilled when she was selected as the scholarship recipient.”
“This scholarship is an important way to channel energy in a positive direction. Talk is one thing, and it certainly is necessary at times. But this scholarship represents action – the kind of action that we need to see much more often. By highlighting and supporting people who are making positive change, we can broaden the impact of their actions on entire communities and even our country,” Gramling added.
The scholarship announcement was made live via Zoom with all 15 UEI campuses participating. Stephens had been selected as a finalist from the Gardena campus, but she says she had no idea they would select her.
“When they said my name it was one of the most joyous moments of my life,” she said. “I’m an only child, so my failures really affected my mother. She worked so hard to provide for me and moments like this are a reminder to her that it was all worth it,” Stephens said. “I am extremely grateful to have been selected.”
“I am confident that Kyla will succeed and continue to inspire UEI and her community long after she graduates,” Gramling said.
Stephens says she was drawn to the dental assistant program because of the plentiful career opportunities, but now her aspirations are to continue education all the way to becoming an orthodontist.
“I want to set a good example. I want to make a difference in people’s lives. The same power they used to take from me is the same power I plan to use and build my happy ending to a tragic, broken, battlefield I once thought was the only way to live. This plan is not just for my story, but the ones who can relate to my pain and experience with life overall. Everything we do counts, so I plan to make the most of every opportunity,” she said. “Thank you to UEI for this great honor.”
Through her persistence and commitment, Stephens has demonstrated that there is another way out of the tribulations of South-Central: through education.