Sylvia Martinez Wakefield
Cal State LA student earns university degree after 30-year journey
She will begin graduate school in the fall at Cal State LA.
By Jillian Beck | Cal State LA News Service
At 16 years old, Sylvia Martinez Wakefield stepped onto the campus of Cal State LA with the goal of becoming the first in her family to earn a college degree.
At the time, Wakefield lived in a group home for foster kids, and before that she had been homeless. Growing up, Wakefield excelled academically. She was an avid reader, straight-A student and a part of the Los Angeles Unified School District’s Gifted and Talented Education program. But her circumstances changed, forcing her to drop out of high school.
She then earned a GED and was accepted into Cal State LA’s Early Entrance Program. The program is now administered by the university’s Honors College and accepts highly gifted students as young as 11 years old.
Wakefield enjoyed learning, but soon faced the great difficulties that come with aging out of the foster care system and left the university after two years.
Nearly 30 years later, the 46-year-old Upland resident graduated from Cal State LA in May with a Bachelor of Arts in Communicative Disorders, marking the culmination of a decades-long journey.
“I think what’s remarkable is the opportunities I got here and where I am today,” Wakefield says. “That’s what’s amazing, that’s what I am so thankful for, that the university gave me a chance to prove that I could do it.”
Wakefield will begin pursuing a Master of Arts in Communicative Disorders, with an emphasis in speech-language pathology at Cal State LA in the fall. She hopes to one day work as a speech language pathologist in public schools.
In the years since leaving Cal State LA at 18, Wakefield raised and homeschooled her four children, discovering a love of literacy and language. Her interest in speech pathology was sparked after one of her children needed to see a speech therapist.
All of her children were accepted into college at 16 years old. Two have since graduated, one is still attending and another recently completed paramedic school.
When her youngest went off to college, Wakefield went back, too. After finishing up several general education courses at Pasadena City College, she transferred to Cal State LA. She quickly found her place on campus in the Robert L. Douglass Speech-Language Clinic, where she served as an undergraduate student clinical assistant.
In the clinic, which serves clients in the community, she helped organize diagnostic materials and assisted graduate students working with clients who stuttered.
Walking through the clinic in King Hall on a recent morning, Wakefield cheerfully greeted clients and staff with a warm smile and kind words. Paula Horner, clinical director for the Department of Communication Disorders, passed by praising Wakefield, calling her “one of the most amazing people.”
Over the last academic year, Wakefield has served as an intern for the Local Dental Pilot Project (LDPP) through the Educational Community Health Outreach program in the university's Rongxiang Xu College of Health and Human Services.
LDPP is a collaboration between the Rongxiang Xu College of Health and Human Services and the Herman Ostrow School of Dentistry of USC. It is funded by a $16.6 million state grant to promote dental health among underserved populations in Los Angeles. Through working with the project, Wakefield says she has learned how to reach vulnerable communities.
Wakefield is driven by a desire to give back to others.
“I think I was born to be a helper,” she says. “I can’t remember not wanting to be in a helping position.”
Since returning to Cal State LA in 2015, Wakefield has been on the Dean’s List every term. At the Rongxiang Xu College of Health and Human Services Honors Convocation, she received a Certificate of Honor from the Department of Communication Disorders. The honor is awarded to two undergraduate and two graduate students in the department for academic excellence.
Wakefield is a member of the National Student Speech Language Hearing Association and California Speech-Language-Hearing Association and she was inducted into the National Society of Leadership and Success.
Out of more than 300 applicants, Wakefield was one of only 20 selected into the master’s degree program in speech-language pathology at Cal State LA.
Wakefield is grateful for the opportunities and support she received while at Cal State LA, and she is pleased to see the services that are now provided to foster youth through programs like the Guardian Scholars.
In the three decades since she first enrolled at Cal State LA, Wakefield has helped dress her four children in caps and gowns for high school and college graduations. But when she walked across the Commencement stage in May, it was the first time she’s worn her own.
“So many times, I have cried in gratitude,” Wakefield says. “This is an unusual story—you don’t go from being homeless, on the street, in a group home to getting into graduate school. It doesn’t happen every day.”