Yessica Leon planned on becoming an attorney. As an undergraduate at California State University, Northridge, she majored in government and political science to prepare herself to study law. She attended career fairs and browsed law school brochures, envisioning herself passing the bar, joining a firm and working in immigration or maybe corporate law.

But by the time she graduated, the financial realities of going to law school had forced a change in Leon’s plans. She would have to find other ways to pursue her interest in law as a career.

“It was just too expensive,” Leon said. “The only way I could go to law school was to take on debt that I couldn’t afford, so I had to choose another path.”

That path eventually led Leon to UCLA Extension, where she’ll graduate on June 23 with a certificate in paralegal studies. But first came a series of learning experiences that pushed Leon to deepen her understanding of the law – and her own strength.

“It hasn’t been easy, but I’m proud of myself,” Leon said. “I’ve been through a lot, but I’ve also grown.”

After deciding not to apply to law school, Leon went to work as a legal secretary for a series of private firms in Los Angeles, specializing in worker’s compensation issues. Her first experiences with office life were challenging and at times unstable: Layoffs were so commonplace, and the environment so competitive, that Leon and her colleagues at one firm dubbed their office “the jungle.”

But despite a steep learning curve, Leon was determined to absorb as much as she could. She often picked the brain of a paralegal she worked with in one of her first jobs, asking about the nuances of legal language and the dynamics of working in a private firm.

“Working there I started to see just how complex the legal profession is, how it really is just a whole different world,” Leon said.

Leon found ways to expand her understanding of the legal system outside the office as well. She volunteered whenever and wherever she could, including at Salvador Action, an NGO that provides legal support for Salvadoran immigrants in Los Angeles.

As the daughter of a Salvadoran father and a Honduran mother, it was a cause Leon was more than familiar with. While in elementary school, Leon temporarily moved with her parents to El Salvador while they waited for U.S. visas. She ended up staying in the country for the more than two years it took for her mother’s application to be approved, leading to challenges when she returned home.

“My language was getting all mixed up, so it made school much harder,” Leon said. “So those were things I understood, and volunteering was a way to help that community.”

Leon continued to work as a legal secretary but was always looking for opportunities to grow. In 2019, she gave birth to a daughter, Katheryn, who she says gave her the strength and motivation to take on new challenges in her life and career.

“I want Kathy to know anything is possible when you put your passion and dedication into it. I hope my strength inspires her to never give up,” Leon said.

In 2020, Leon started a new job in the public sector that offered to pay for her tuition if she pursued paralegal studies. Thinking of her daughter, she jumped at the chance.

“When it comes to education those are opportunities you can’t miss, because those are open doors for your future,” she said.

Leon said the coursework at UCLA Extension improved her writing and public speaking skills and exposed her to new areas of the law. Above all, though, it reminded her of her ability to overcome challenges.

“The program helped give me that strength to continue growing as a person and growing in my career, and in the end to find what I love and where I’m truly meant to be,” Leon said. “It’s never too late.”