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The Power of Community logo
The Power of Community logo

Since the creation of Pacific Oaks, community has formed the foundation of our institution, welcoming different cultures, backgrounds, and perspectives as an opportunity to enhance the learning, service, and success of our students.

At Pacific Oaks, the power of community means many things. It means respecting the communities our students come from. It means valuing their unique perspectives and experience as they join our community, helping strengthen and diversify our College. And it means supporting and guiding them as they use their past as a foundation to positively impact the future of communities they will go on to serve.



Click on the images below to read what the power of community means to different members of our Pacific Oaks family.


The power of community means learning how to advocate for change.

Denise Smith knew she wanted to do more to help children. The water crisis in  Flint, Michigan provided her the chance to answer the call. The community of Flint with strong and resilient residents rebounding from high poverty, troubled schools, and disinvestment reminded Detroit, her hometown.

After earning her master’s degree in Human Development from Pacific Oaks, Denise Smith had held a range of positions in early childhood education and childcare, an administrator for Early Head Start and Head Start programs; a director of Michigan’s tiered quality rating and improvement system (TQRIS), and vice president of  a non profit dedicated to early learning from the cradle to career education reform.

The crisis in Flint called for comprehensive interventions to prevent the most at-risk children in the town  who may have been impacted by high lead concentrations from suffering disproportionately. Denise pulled from the training and experience she gained at Pacific Oaks and joined forces with a diverse group of civic leaders to find solutions for this community in great need. Together, they opened two high-quality early childhood centers in two years’ time.

In 2017 she was hired as executive director for the Flint Early Childhood Collaborative and Educare Flint. Educare is a nationally recognized nonprofit providing early childhood programs to financially disadvantaged infants, toddlers, and preschoolers. The program currently serves 220 children and families in Flint on an annual basis, with plans to grow. For example, it’s sister school Cummings Great Expectations shares in the mission to provide high quality child care and early education that is developmentally accurate, linguistically appropriate, and customized to fit each individual child’s needs.Together, these schools are providing constant care to a community in great need bringing comfort and support to hundreds of children and their families.

“Pacific Oaks introduced me to intricacies of infant toddler work, and the dance between child and provider,” she says. “If children are given the opportunities and experiences like those we’re helping to provide in Flint, they can become their best selves.”

Denise Smith
Pacific Oaks College


The power of community means a full-time mom can get her degree.

Chaz Dennis knew that pursuing a M.A. in Marriage and Family Therapy would be hard work. But she didn’t know that she would become pregnant part way through her program. Long days became longer, sleep became less frequent, and she thought the degree of her dreams may no longer be within reach.

That’s when the community at Pacific Oaks stepped up, understanding that motherhood was a gift, not a burden. So the staff got creative and made sure she could keep up with classwork. Professors and her fellow classmates provided any support she needed and were available whenever she needed it, even taking notes if she wasn’t able to attend class.

The support, and Chaz’s hard work, allowed her to graduate on time and get to work as an agent of change in her local community, putting her new master’s degree to work and helping families heal.

“Pacific Oaks helped me by just being really encouraging. When I found out I was pregnant, the faculty was so understanding and could relate to my situation. They were always able to work with me so that I could still graduate on time and do what I needed to do. It’s really like a family here, and everyone just tries to help each other.”

Chaz Dennis
Pacific Oaks College


The power of community means turning your passion into a profession.

Heaven Cisse grew up seeing the mental health crisis in her South Central Los Angeles community and, at times, within her own family. She has recognized the need for culturally-based treatments, and understands the legacy and impact slavery and racism has had on Africans of the diaspora, particularly African Americans.

But she’s no longer merely a witness.

Within days of graduating she was offered a full-time job working at the Weber Community Center in South Central Los Angeles—a center providing comprehensive outpatient mental health and substance abuse services to at risk children and youth, and the same agency where Pacific Oaks local partnerships helped her secure valuable hands-on practicum experience while finishing her master’s degree in marriage and family therapy at our Pasadena campus.

“I’ve always been passionate about the issues facing my community, but thanks to Pacific Oaks, I can now stand in the gap between the hurt my community has felt, and the healing we can create.”

Heaven Cisse
Pacific Oaks College

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The power of community means your life experience is as valuable as a textbook.

Trauma. Redemption. Triumph.

These are the words that illustrate Pacific Oaks alumna Sky Lea Ross’s life. Ross was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder at age 15 as a result of physical and emotional abuse she endured from her mother and other family members. But she did not let this hold her back from accomplishing her life goals. Self-driven, Ross went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in gender studies and then found her way to Pacific Oaks College where she earned a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy.

Ross says she feels especially connected to her area of study because she is able to relate her studies to her life experiences and those of people close to her. She appreciates how the Pacific Oaks curriculum is not only applicable in the classroom, but also in her own life.

“Pacific Oaks College will trigger you,” she said. “It will make you grow and become stronger and more resilient. You’re not just learning the material, you’re learning about yourself.”

Among many goals, Ross aspires to open a sex-positive clinic with colleagues and work with members of the LGBTQ+ community as well as victims of sexual assault, drawing from her own background and utilizing the knowledge Pacific Oaks has equipped her with to help others overcome traumatic experiences like those in her life.

“It’s important to do the work to know yourself,” she said. “Only when you know yourself—your strengths, weaknesses, trigger points, passions—can you understand and help others. Pacific Oaks College helps by enlightening you about your own struggles and also those of your community so that you can make the greatest impact after you graduate. It’s worth every penny.”

Sky Lea Ross
Pacific Oaks College


The power of community means professors with open doors and open minds.

Veronica Estrada, Ed.D., faculty in Pacific Oaks’ School of Human Development, doesn’t just say she cares about her students, she shows it. From proudly showcasing pages from student theses papers on her office door to proactively engaging students inside the classroom. She takes the time to understand each individuals’ background, academic goals, and insecurities.

“What I’ve noticed is that a lot of students have academic trauma,” she says. “They may feel that they are not smart enough or not bright enough. Maybe something happened to them in elementary school, junior high, high school, or community college that has really affected them academically. So, when they’re in my classroom, I share that I also went through a lot of academic difficulties to get where I am, but I didn’t give up.”

A few years ago she decided to help students visualize their future success in a truly unique way. She brought to class the doctoral robe she had worn at her own graduation and asked her students, specifically some that seemed to be struggling, to put it on and describe how they felt.

“It really impacted them. Many described how incredible it felt and how it motivated them,” she says. “These were students that had such low self-esteem or a lot of self-doubt. But just putting on this robe helped change their thinking about themselves and what they are capable of accomplishing.”

Today, putting on Dr. Estrada’s doctoral robe has become somewhat of a tradition for Pacific Oaks’ students, as word-of-mouth keeps the tradition alive from one semester to the next.

“Often times, all a student needs to succeed is that one connection, maybe to a faculty member, or someone else that believes in them. It can really help change their way of thinking,” Dr. Estrada says. “I’ve learned from students that at the end of the day we’re wired for human connection, and if we can connect with each other the power of learning is so much stronger.”

Veronica Estrada
Pacific Oaks College


The power of community means being proud of where you came from.

Billy Truong was born in Nha Trang, Vietnam in 1978, three years after the Communist Party had taken complete control of the country’s government. Because Truong’s family supported U.S. involvement during the Vietnam War, they were labeled as traitors and forced to flee.

The family settled in Los Angeles, but struggled to adapt to their new life. Truong’s parents spoke little English and owned few possessions, relying heavily on the support of the American government and the kindness of strangers to help them survive.

“My upbringing wasn’t easy, but it shaped the person I am today,” he says. “I feel a deep sense of commitment to use my personal experiences to help advocate for others in tough situations.”

In particular, Truong has volunteered his time to support children experiencing homelessness for more than a decade with organizations like the nonprofit LA on Cloud 9. In that time, he also earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Pacific Oaks College in human development.

“In one of my classes at Pacific Oaks, I was able to reflect on and analyze my childhood,” Truong says. “It gave me the chance to tell my story as a refugee for the first time. The level of respect I was treated with made me comfortable to open up and share my experiences, and it led me to realize just how much I’ve accomplished, how far I’ve come, and how proud I am of that story. Now I feel like it is my responsibility to give other people that same respect and support I received at Pacific Oaks.”

Billy Truong
Alumni & Adjunct Faculty
Pacific Oaks College

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Explore Additional Content

Here are some more ways we put the power of community into action at Pacific Oaks.

SJ Night Feature
Pacific Oaks College Hosts Social Justice Night Awards

Pacific Oaks College held its inaugural Social Justice Night where Lesford Duncan, Pacific Oaks’ first Social Justice Hero was honored

Pacific Oaks’ past, present, and future in social justice

From the development of anti-bias curriculum to the Social Justice Night Awards, explore Pacific Oaks’ long-held commitment to the values of social justice.

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How Pacific Oaks changed the life of Pasadena’s Stark Spirits owner

Stark Spirits distillery co-owner Karen Robinson-Stark reflects on how Pacific Oaks influenced her career path—from childhood development expert to entrepreneur. Discover the “spirit” she found through her work.

pasadena local leaders blue banner with a shot of a courtyard in the background
Pacific Oaks’ top 5 local leaders to watch in 2018

Pasadena is home to countless non-profits and leaders who are loud and passionate about the issues that affect them and others. We are honoring five local leaders that are continuing to spark change in the communities they serve.