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Renee Ramirez Finds Her Calling Through NOCE’s Funeral Services Assistant Certificate Program Student Spotlight
By her own admission, Renee Ramirez’s life has not been an easy one. By the age of 16, she had dropped out of Anaheim High School, moved to Arizona to escape a difficult home life, and was working odd jobs trying to make ends meet. But even after completing her GED, ends were not meeting and Renee realized they would never meet without a college education.
“From 16 to 20, I worked all sorts of jobs, and hated all of them,” recalls Ramirez. “I was trying to find myself and it wasn’t working. The job that did it was when I was an assistant manager at a Payless shoe store. I was working from early morning till the store had been closed for two hours and just felt like I was being taken advantage of. I was a hard worker and knew I was worth more, but without a degree, I was stuck.”
Ramirez took a leap of faith, quit her job, moved back home (to what had become a better situation), and started attending Cypress College while working part-time as a barista at a local gas station. A year into her studies at Cypress, Ramirez found a pamphlet for North Orange Continuing Education’s (NOCE) free Funeral Service Assistant Certificate (FSAC), a six-course program that provides an in-depth introduction into the field, prepares students for entry-level work within the funeral industry and is a direct pathway into the Mortuary Science AS and BS programs at Cypress College.
“It’s free, it’s night classes, it’s a couple days a week, it’s close to where I live, and I get a certificate, and I just thought ‘wow,’” says Ramirez. “I’m going to check it out.”
According to the North Orange County Community College District’s Emsi-powered Career Coach website, funeral services assistants make an average annual salary of $34,819 and are in constant demand given a high number of job vacancies and a low number of qualified graduates.
“The program was developed in partnership with Cypress College’s Mortuary Science program and launched in 2015 to help meet a growing industry need for highly trained funeral service workers,” says NOCE’s Program Manager, Career Technical Education, Kim Tang. “It’s not intended as a substitute for degree, licensing, or apprenticeship requirements, but rather gives students a realistic understanding and introduction into funeral service practice that can lead to employment as a Funeral Service Assistant and/or to the Cypress College Mortuary Science AS degree program.”
Because demand for Cypress College’s program is high and they are only able to accept a small fraction of applicants into their program, NOCE’s FSAC program gives students a way to pursue their educational and career goals instead of stopping out for 6-12 months while they wait for the next application cycle at Cypress College.
As an added benefit, students who complete the FSAC program and transfer to the Mortuary Science Program at Cypress college are eligible to earn up to 9 units of course credit via credit-by-exam. This can shave off almost a semester in their program completion timeline at Cypress.
Soon after Ramirez started at NOCE, she knew she had found her calling.
“It’s weird to say, but I found myself and what I wanted to do with my life at a funeral,” says Ramirez. “I always cry when I tell this story but it’s a happy story. I had a close family friend die—one of my favorite people in the world. Her family and friends and everyone who loved her, they were all there at the funeral, they were all there for her, all caring for each other during the hardest time in their lives. And I just realized that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to be there for people. I wanted to help people through the hard times.”
Last May, despite the challenges created by the COVID-19 pandemic, Ramirez completed the Funeral Service Assistant Certificate program at NOCE and was accepted into Cypress’s Mortuary Science AS. Like so many students, despite Ramirez’s willingness to work hard, lack of resources has made pursuing her college education a considerable challenge.
“Transportation, food, and just general resources like internet or being able to have a desktop instead of a cell phone have all been a challenge,” says Ramirez. “But Cypress and NOCE have a lot of services which help.”
In particular, Ramirez points to financial aid, discounted OCTA bus passes, and Cypress and NOCE’s food pantries as providing important support to her during her educational journey.
“As far as food security goes, both Cypress and NOCE have food banks,” says Ramirez. “I was there at least once a week making sure I had everything I needed, so I could do well and not fall asleep in class. It’s little things, but everything helps when you’re trying to make ends meet.”
Ramirez also credits Cypress and NOCE’s Resource Centers as being critical to her success.
“On one side, they have a whole computer lab for students, which is great, especially for students who don’t have a good computer,” says Ramirez. “And on the other side, they have tutors for just about any subject you might need. When I would get stuck, those tutors were there to help me figure it out and that was just the most helpful thing.”
Ramirez also appreciates that her NOCE instructor was a professional who worked in the industry.
“How can you teach students about the latest things happening in an industry if you don’t actually work in it?” asks Ramirez. “That’s what made the classes so great. You start with a general introduction and get more and more specific as you go. Usually, you get to tour the funeral home where your instructor works and spend a whole day just seeing the different things you do. I just think that’s amazing and a great way to show students what the job is really like because that hands-on experience is what it’s all about.”
Come fall, Ramirez, who one day hopes to become a funeral director, is excited to be starting at Cypress. Because Ramirez has completed NOCE’s program, she will have the extra advantage of being able to save time and money by testing out of certain classes.
“I can’t wait to get even more hands-on,” says Ramirez. “And once I get a feel for how the classes are going to go and the time I’ll need to spend studying, I’ll probably start applying for jobs. I just can’t wait. I already have a list of funeral homes I want to apply to. I’m so excited. It’s like I don’t only have a dream of what I want to be, I have a plan for how to get there.”
For more information about NOCE’s Funeral Services Assistant Certificate, please visit http://careers.noce.edu/programs/funeral-service-assistant/.