Shayla Salzman

From High School Dropout to Harvard PhD Candidate: SRJC helped Shayla Salzman find her life’s path


Born in Texas, raised in Georgia and Germany, Shayla spent “too many winters” in Michigan working on an organic farm. She eventually settled in northern California, managing the Boonville farmer’s market. Her mother, a career counselor, discovered the SRJC Sustainable Agriculture Certificate program and recommended that her daughter return to school. Shayla planned to complete the certificate only, then move on. But one class led to another, and she fell in love with science.

“I wasn’t interested in an associate’s degree, let alone a bachelor’s degree when I started at SRJC. But I took Steve Mullany’s soil science class, followed by his plant science course, and found a passion for science. The faculty encouraged me to consider a higher degree. I decided to pursue the associate’s degree which meant more math and English classes, even more than I needed to receive an A.S., because I had dropped out of high school.” When she received a 100% on a test in Claire Shurvinton’s microbiology class, Shurvinton encouraged her to pursue a bachelor’s degree, suggesting UC Berkeley. “I began to see myself differently when I realized how supportive and serious my professors were about what I could achieve,” said Shayla. “SRJC’s lab equipment is top notch,” she added. “You don’t have the ability in other schools, even Berkeley and Harvard, to use the equipment that we got at the JC.”

She also raves about the faculty at SRJC: “I love the math faculty at SRJC. I love the biology and chemistry departments. Taking Robin Fautley’s biology classes at SRJC changed the course of my life. She gave a final lecture in Biology 10 that had half the class in tears, as she explained that to be good citizens of this planet we all need to have an understanding of biology. She has been one of my biggest supporters…Galen George [Chemistry] should receive the best teacher on the planet award. Joe Fassler took time outside of class to catch me up on chemistry. I still stay in touch with Galen and Robin.”

Supported by instructors, the scholarship office and financial aid office, Shayla transferred to UC Berkeley and later, Harvard, where she now is pursuing a PhD in plant-insect interactions. Shayla maintains that the hardest exam she ever completed was for the late Nick Anast’s zoology class. “At SRJC, the emphasis was on learning how to think and to use your experience to analyze and interact with new information. At Berkeley, they just wanted the two-word answer. That was not the way SRJC taught and because of that, it’s been a cakewalk since then.”

Shayla’s husband’s SRJC experience was also very positive. After a time at San Francisco State University, he returned to the JC, taking classes that led to his career as a professional photographer.

Shayla’s dream is to teach science at SRJC. “At SRJC’s graduation, you walk to the reception through a line of all the professors in their academic regalia while THEY applaud YOU. It’s like a movie, walking past all these people who helped you achieve your degree and changed the course of your life. I want to be one of those people for someone else one day.”