Cari Leet: Hope Rising

Cari Leet is vitality embodied. Quick to laugh, this vibrant ball of energy brings joy to every interaction. Her smile is infectious. But six years ago, there wasn’t much to smile about. Back then, Leet’s life was very different.

“In 2012, my company got sold and I lost my job,” Leet said. “Six months later, I lost my house.”

CariLeetHer two children moved in with their father, while Leet struggled to get back on her feet. She had worked hard to earn her previous position, but she lacked the formal education to start at the same level from scratch. She was jobless, homeless and out of options. But she wasn’t out of spunk. “I thought, if I’m going to change my life, I’m going to have to do it myself,” she said.

Leet didn’t believe school was an option for her. She’d struggled in high school and ultimately gotten her GED. But she knew she had to do something. “I decided I wanted to provide a better life for my kids – myself too, but my kids first,” she said.

So she went to Oklahoma, where she’s a member of the Choctaw tribe, to complete career development. This gave her the confidence she needed to pursue higher education. She enrolled in Centralia College’s associate’s program, using Pell Grant and Tribal funds. “I was in Yelm, so I could have gone elsewhere,” she said, “but I liked how I felt here. Everyone was so helpful.”

There were struggles along the way, but Leet made it through. She even earned a spot on the dean’s list and placed 10th in her first speech competition. “I worked my butt off,” she said. And Centralia College staff helped. “The school went to bat for me,” Leet noted. “I’ve had issues with funding and they’ve always helped figure it out.”

Leet also appreciated the professors. “They really care,” she said. “And they can really hear you because they’re also working full time and teaching and going to school.”

After graduating with her associate’s degree in business administration in 2016, Leet moved on to phase two: earning her bachelor’s degree. Centralia College’s BAS-AM program was the perfect fit. “It provides working parents opportunities,” she said. “I’ve been single with kids, and in school, and working. I don’t have all that time. It’s so different to raise little human beings without an extra set of hands.”

Leet’s two children were enrolled in school while she earned her associate’s degree. “It was perfect back then,” she said. “I was done and back home in Yelm before they got off the bus.”

When her youngest son was born shortly after starting her bachelor’s degree, it changed everything. Leet was forced to medically withdraw from the program. “It was a really low point for me,” she said. “I did all this successful stuff and now I have to start back at square one with a baby. I kept thinking, what am I doing? But everything’s got a silver lining.”

Leet took a year off with her newborn son, then returned to accomplishing her goal – more committed than ever.

During the BAS-AM program, Leet applied for a position at Blue Heron Bakery in Olympia. They’d bypassed her application in the past, but with her associate’s degree on the resume, this time was different. “I turned in my application and he called and hired me the next day,” she said. “I had that opportunity – not for wrapping cookies and packaging bread – but for doing what I do: the office job.”

The education she’s received at Centralia College has proven helpful in Leet’s day job since. “At this school, you get the tools andthey show you how to use them,” she said. “In my classes, I learned how to really use tools like QuickBooks. Before, I learned from each small business owner who had just taught themselves, which was such a different experience. They only knew how to make it work for their company but not how to use the program fully. But after my classes, I could actually answer their questions and do the work. That boosted my confidence so much.”

Today Leet is only one quarter away from graduation and she’s thriving. “There’s so much more to my ability to handle stress now,” she said. “It’s not as hard as you make it up in your mind to be. Once you start taking tests and passing them, that’s the key. There was so much more fear associated with it than there ever needed to be.”

Leet is inspired by the many BAS-AM speakers who reframed her idea of what’s possible. “We had a speaker who said, ‘A lot of people teach you to think outside the box, but I encourage you to realize there is no box,’” Leet recalled. “There is no limit; whatever you think you can do, you can do it. You really realize you’re the only person who can limit what you can do.”

Leet developed a long list of valuable skills at Centralia College. “I’ve got a MAC toolbox that’s fully furnished,” she said with a laugh.

And she’s putting those skills to good work – achieving her goals one by one. “Every single thing I wanted to accomplish, I’ve smashed that goal,” she said.

The oldest of seven children, Leet is the first person in her family to earn her college degree. But the others have taken note. Her younger brother is now enrolled in business classes and her sister is earning her associate’s. Leet’s daughter is also going back to school for nursing. Leet constantly encourages them to set goals and reach for the sky. “[My daughter] told me I’ve inspired her,” Leet said.

For those who’d like to earn their degree but haven’t yet made the leap, Leet recommended examining the fear. “If you’re looking for an excuse, you’re always going to find one,” she said. “Just flip the fear around and start looking for the positives. [Lead Faculty] Mary McClain encourages us to realize this is life-long learning. [Assistant Psychology Professor] Atara Macnamara didn’t even get her graduate degree until she was 50. If she did it, you can do it. It’ll be tough but everything worth having is worth doing the work for.”

Leet will graduate with her bachelor’s degree in June and her future looks bright. “I can’t wait, I’m so excited,” she said. “I‘m already pulling out my cap and gown. I wore it at my first graduation, now I’m wearing it at my second.”

She’s especially excited for the future. “I want to do all the things I’ve been waiting to do, like finding that really good career that I can do now and retire from,” Leet said. “I’ve never worked a job with benefits. Now I’m looking at State jobs making more money than I’ve ever made in my life. Just having this bachelor’s degree opens that door.”

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