When Jammal Yarbrough accepted a summer internship with TE Connectivity in Pennsylvania, he was quick to ask if he would be able to attend his College of the Canyons on graduation on June 3 to receive his associate degree in electrical engineering.
The 36-year-old said he wouldn’t miss it for the world.
“For me, graduating even at the community college level, feels monumental,” said Yarbrough who was one of 14 students—and the only community college student—from across the nation to be selected for the inaugural class of TE Connectivity’s African Heritage Scholarship Program. “I can hardly believe it’s happening, and yet I’m so excited for what’s to come! I feel like I’ve accomplished something special.”
Those in attendance will be the friends, teachers, and mentors who have become his makeshift family over the years.
“If you don’t have a family, you have to build one,” said Yarbrough.
When Yarbrough was eight years old, his father was arrested on Christmas Eve for a bounced check and was sentenced to 22 years in prison under the Three Strikes Law.
“The last time I saw my father was in a courtroom,” said the Los Angeles resident.
Shortly after, his mother developed a drug addiction while struggling to raise six children.
“She raised us on her own the best she could,” said Yarbrough, who experienced homelessness and often slept on the couches of friends. “These things can stop anyone from moving forward. You can use it as an excuse to give up, but I love a challenge. I am a fighter.”
After earning his GED degree in 2012, he went straight into the workforce and took a job as a security guard.
But all the while, Yarbrough never forgot about his childhood dream of becoming an engineer.
As a curious child, Yarbrough would shadow the maintenance worker in his apartment building while he made repairs. He recalls taking apart his sister’s Easy Bake oven to figure out how it worked.
“I still owe her one,” laughed Yarbrough.
With the encouragement of his best friend, Yarbrough enrolled at COC in 2021 to make his dreams a reality.
At COC, Yarbrough flourished academically and found community and purpose as a member of Mathematics, Engineering and Science Achievement (MESA) program, the International Peer Mentor Club, and the college’s NASA RockSatX project.
Teresa Ciardi, advisor to the COC NASA RockSatX team, was immediately impressed by his constant positive energy and can-do attitude.
“Jammal is always ready to lend a helping hand, to teach others, and makes sure everyone feels included,” said Ciardi.
When Ciardi picked Yarbrough as the team’s electrical lead, he couldn’t believe it. To make up for his perceived lack of electrical engineering skills, he learned everything he needed to know to design the team’s flight computers on his own time outside of class.
“I truly believe that his involvement with the NASA RockSatX project and being chosen for a leadership position has helped him to be persistent and resilient when life did not make it easy for him to focus on school at times,” said Ciardi. “Jammal has gone from not believing he could do this [electrical engineering] to thriving.”
However, Yarbrough’s path to graduation would take an unexpected turn when he lost his job during the COVID-19 pandemic and could no longer afford to live in Santa Clarita.
Thanks to the college’s transition to remote learning, Yarbrough was able to move in with his best friend in Downtown Los Angeles to complete his studies.
“The emotional roller coaster I’ve been on since day one has been full of fear, excitement, stress, and test anxiety,” said Yarbrough. “Although, out of all the good and bad emotional experiences I dealt with and the highs and lows I’ve encountered, the one feeling that I haven’t been faced with is regret. I am so grateful for the opportunity of earning my degree.”
Yarbrough has been accepted by Cal Poly Pomona to begin earning a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and computer science in the fall. He has his sights on entering the aerospace engineering industry and specializing in electrical engineering.
Reflecting on his academic journey so far, Yarbrough is glad he got his start at COC.
“COC is an amazing community college,” said Yarbrough. “I don’t think I would experience this level of success at any other community college.”