It's a one-intersection settlement, said Allegan County Clerk Joyce Watts, and in the most agriculturally-rich county in Michigan, Garcia's area is an exception. "Lee Township has some of the most beautiful lakes," said Watts, "but it's clay. It's not good farmland."
Yet the area is attractive to both poor and rich people, because of nearly nonexistent property taxes and building codes. Chicago retirees live next to lifelong Pullmanites who live next to farm workers in an area that lacks a centralized water system.
"You have very marginal dwellings and very beautiful homes," Watts said.
Garcia said for fun, kids play in the woods and go to the mall. But not many kids from her area go to college, and with limited options in Pullman as a deaf person, her teachers decided it was time to expand her horizons.
An opportunity came to visit Gallaudet during her junior year, and Garcia and four others in the program for deaf students raised the money to hop a plane to the nation's capital. She wasn't sure what Washington, D.C., was going to be like, but she was ready for the chance to explore.
At Gallaudet, Garcia was entranced. She said everywhere she went, hands were flying, and in the gestures, she could understand what was going on.
"I walked in and was like, there were so many deaf people signing -- the teachers, the students -- it was a dream come true," she said.
Fleischmann said the visit was a one-of-a-kind experience for the students.
"It opened the student's eyes to options outside of our small town," she said. "The kids were able to go to Subway and order their sandwiches because everyone signed."
And Garcia was hooked. Back in Pullman, she continued to study, baby-sitting her nieces and nephews while her older siblings worked. In her senior year, she applied for undergraduate admission with the goal of studying graphic art and design. She was accepted, but conditionally. Her English still wasn't strong enough to do college work, the university said, despite the strides she'd made. To get to that level of English proficiency, she needed more English classes and decided to enroll in Gallaudet's English Language Institute. At the end of the summer, she bid Michigan farewell and moved into a dorm in Washington, D.C., to study English all day, nearly every day.
Gallaudet's English Language Institute has five levels of study students go through to master English, said Ali Sanjabi, a operations staff member at the school. Garcia tested at Level Three and must pass Level Five to have the best chances of scoring well on the ACT and Gallaudet's proficiency exams.
Students take anywhere from one semester to three years to master enough English and American Sign Language to be able to do college work, Sanjabi said. Garcia said she hoped to be done in two semesters and finished her first in December, going from Level Three to Level Four. That's when she lost the funding.
Fleischmann said the vocational agency that gave her the grant didn't feel she was progressing fast enough, even though she was only one level from proficiency as the spring semester started.
"It was like the rug was pulled out from under her. It was just obstacle after obstacle," said Fleischmann.
She and Rebecca Sidders, another teacher, said they couldn't let Garcia come home. So the women reached out to everyone they knew on Facebook. They shared her story and encouraged her to post to the page. The money started coming in.
One of her donors was Jacqueline Deneau, 62, of Hartford. After seeing Garcia's video in her Facebook feed, she decided to donate to the young woman, even though she didn't know her.
"This girl is trying so hard to get educated," said Deneau. "I just had compassion for what she's gone through."
As they reached the $10,000 mark with just a day or two spare, there was another setback. The grant had been pulled before all her fall payments had been made. In addition to the $10,000 for spring tuition, there was suddenly a bill for $2,000 more in fall payments.
Sidders and Fleischmann made one final plea, and people from Michigan to Oregon and everywhere between pitched in.
Garcia's last bill was paid. She went to class and her teachers were able to relax. Garcia, their first graduate, was back to learning and living in a world she has made so much bigger than those few hand gestures from when she was 10.
"She's had to adapt so much," said Fleischmann. "It was a little overwhelming. For her to be -- 11 years later -- college bound, is really amazing."
Distributed by MCT Information Services
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