Students had eventful year and deal with loss of classmate as they look ahead towards life on their own

The 23 members of Taft College’s Transition to Independent Living Class of 2014 will receive their associate’s degrees or certificates in ceremonies at 9 a.m. Friday.

The annual TIL commencement ceremonies will be held in the Taft Union High School Auditorium. A TIL awards ceremony will be held at 6 p.m. Thursday at OT’s Cookhouse.

Of the 23 graduates, 10 plan to return to the college in August to participate in a third year of the TIL program to obtain a certificate.

During the third year, the students live off-campus and hold-down a full-time job, using the skills they learned in their first two years of the program, said John Dodson, interim co-director of TIL with Robin Polski.

The 2013-14 school year has had its highs and its lows, Dodson said. The fall semester started with a high, the move into the new TIL facilities.

“There were new facilities and new classes, but there was an adjusting period without (longtime TIL employee) Sandy Popjoy,” he said. “This is the first time without her here during the school year.”

Then in January, Ryan Weinberg, who was in his second year of the TIL program, became ill in Taft and died later at Stanford Medical Center in Northern California.

Weinberg’s parents and family will attend the commencement ceremonies and there will be an empty chair where he would have been sitting during graduation, he said.

“Ryan’s passing showed the students’ resilience as they all pulled together,” Dodson said.  “It has been interesting with all of the changes, to see them overcome this challenge and move forward.”

And earlier this month, founding Director Jeff Ross retired from the TIL program. That resulted in Dodson and Polski being named interim co-directors.



Two of the 23 graduates and the 10 who will return for the third year program are Jake Freeman and Nika Tsai.

Both are from Southern California.

Freeman’s parents, Barry and Karen Freeman, will be the keynote speakers at graduation.

Nika Tsai

Tsai, 23, is from Corona in western Riverside County. She is a graduate of Glen A. Wilson High School in Hacienda Heights in eastern Los Angeles County.

“I’m just taking life as it goes every day,” she said. “Hopefully (after TIL) I’ll find a good job. I think I’ll stay in Corona with my Mon and Dad, but support myself.”

The TIL program is her first experience in college and living away from home. Tsai works at the Goodwill store in Taft, where she will continue to work next school year, she said.

“The staff people did help me here to go out into the real world and be positive, and find a job,” TSAI said.

“I want to thank my parents for letting me come here and learn stuff I never knew from high school.”

She has learned how better to manage her money, balance a checkbook, personal relationships and to make sure she eats healthier.

“I did some check writing at home, but more here,” Tsai said. “And I learned how to cook a little bit better; find recipes online, buy groceries.”

Jake Freeman

Freeman, 20, was born in Boston but has lived in Los Angeles nearly all of his life. He attended junior high and high school at The Help Group in Sherman Oaks, in the San Fernando Valley.

TIL is his first time living away from home.

“I’m gaining more independence; it is really awesome,” Freeman said. “It’s a good learning experience, getting along with roommates. It’s a big thing living on your own.

“The classes were real good. They helped me greatly. My first time to cook was TIL.”

He has learned money management, paying bills, rent, writing checks.

Freeman said he wants to go into the nutrition field after completing the third year of TIL.

“I’m big on healthy eating, food preparation and advising people on healthy living,” he said. “I just got into it recently. I’m into physical fitness.”

Freeman will be working at Occidental Petroleum during the 2014-15 school year.