From illiteracy to creative writing certification, City College student continues to reach for her goals despite hardship

‘God’s got my back’: creative writing student Judy Philbin believes she is where she is meant to be
Judy Philbin is picked up by her daughter and grandkids after her school day on Tuesday, Feb.15, 2024. She commutes to school from El Cajon by trolley on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Photo by Keila Menjivar Zamora/City Times Media
Judy Philbin is picked up by her daughter and grandkids after her school day on Tuesday, Feb.15, 2024. She commutes to school from El Cajon by trolley on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Photo by Keila Menjivar Zamora/City Times Media
Keila Menjivar Zamora

At 25, Judy Philbin found herself “reading” to her five-year-old daughter, Jessica, who had been in kindergarten for a couple of weeks. She was making up the story using pictures in the book because, despite graduating high school, she didn’t know how to read or write. 

Today, despite a litany of struggles, she’s at San Diego City College working on a creative writing certification to write her own memoir. 

Philbin grew up a ward of the court in San Diego. In 1982, a day before her 19th birthday, she graduated high school while living in a foster home.

“All I did was sit in the corner at the school in the group home and they’d give me coloring books,” Philbin said. “I graduated with a high-school diploma with A’s and B’s and I didn’t even know how to spell my own last name.”

When her daughter interrupted her “reading” to tell her that those weren’t the words, Judy knew her days of illiteracy were over. She learned about READ/San Diego and got a tutor from 25 to 26 years old.

READ/San Diego offers free literacy instruction for adults, according to the City of San Diego website. According to their fact sheet, there are approximately 560,000 illiterate adults in San Diego.

“… Within a year I learned how to read and went straight to college so that my kids would have no excuse to do it too,” the creative writing student said. 

At 26 she enrolled in the San Diego Community College District, where she earned an associate degree in Black Studies taking classes at both City and Mesa colleges. 

Philbin sits in the High Tech Center where she’s taking an Accessible Computer Lab class this semester. She is also taking Intro to Creative Writing 1 and Introduction to Screenwriting, Tuesday, Feb.15, 2024. Photo by Keila Menjivar Zamora/City Times Media

Philbin, who identifies as white, is a mother to mixed kids. She wanted to educate her kids from a place that considered their identity. 

Upon earning her AA, she transferred to San Diego State University where she earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology. 

She graduated at 36 in 2001.

Upon graduating college, she began to take care of people in hospice and eventually created her own hospice company. 

While working as a hospice professional, she drove long distances to get to her clients. She recalls driving from Palm Springs to San Diego three times a week to take care of a patient, but a severe road rage incident led her to get rid of her vehicle. 

“Driving drunk, driving angry and driving tired is equally dangerous,” the mother of two said.

When a man driving his family in a van cut her off on the freeway, she became so upset she missed her exit to follow him, blocked him with her car and ran towards the family to yell at him. Her behavior scared her.

“I went home and got rid of the car the next day. I said, ‘No way, you can’t do this,’” Philbin said. 

Last spring, Philbin decided she wanted to try coming back to college. She chose to try Cuyamaca College because it was close to her house and she was using public transportation.

Philbin used disAbility Support Programs and Services (DSPS) accommodations the first time she was in college. She found the reader, writer, and notetaker accommodation helpful due to her experience with literacy. 

“I didn’t really think I was going to be able to go to take a class and be able to not use the accommodations that I had established my first time I went to college,” Philbin said. 

But while at Cuyamaca, she got a B+ in English 120 with professor Marvelyn Bucky, despite not using her DSPS accommodations.

“She’s excellent at having beautiful details, beautiful transitions, and just creating,” Bucky said. “The way she creates her story makes you want to keep reading it. And not everybody has that kind of talent right off the bat.”

The English professor encouraged Philbin to enroll in creative writing classes at City College to further her writing skills. Philbin’s original plan was to pay a ghostwriter to write her memoir, but Bucky’s belief in Philbin inspired her to take her advice and return to take classes at City. 

“I think she can tell her own story and I have confidence that she will do that,” Bucky said.

In addition to growing up in the foster care system and navigating illiteracy as an adult, Philbin has also survived cancer four times. What began as a misdiagnosis of a “drop” at the bottom of her foot in 2010 eventually turned out to be a rare form of melanoma called metastatic melanoma. 

“It seems like every couple of years I was getting another tumor, for a few years,” the retired hospice professional said. “The last one in 2016 was the size of a baseball.”

Philbin was taking art classes at Mesa College that she was unable to continue due to health issues. She endured two rounds of chemotherapy totaling two years. She did chemotherapy for a year each time and went in for treatment three times a week. Working on her art helped her work through difficult emotions. 

“I’m telling you, it’s torture, it’s torture the chemo, not the cancer,” said the SDSU alumna. 

Philbin took art classes at Mesa College and creates art in sets of three. Her art centers on her family, life story, and spiritual path. Photo credit, Judy Philbin.

Philbin is not deterred. She said her experience in Bucky’s English class helped her love herself. 

“When you’re illiterate you always feel dumb,” she said with a shaky voice. “Even when you learn to read, it doesn’t matter. No degree can make you feel smart when you spend so many years being told you’re nothing but a dumb ass.”

“(Professor Bucky) made me believe I could do it,” she said.

She commutes to City College from El Cajon on Tuesdays and Thursdays via trolley. She leaves her house at 8 a.m. and arrives on campus around 9:45 a.m., and the trek hasn’t been easy for her. She fears for her safety on public transportation. 

“You don’t feel safe on those things,” she said. “I sit right by the door (when) I get in, right in the first seat. That way if it crashes I can get the heck off first.”

Despite her fears, Philbin continues to show up for her academic and personal goals. She said she knows God’s got her. 

“I’m very proud (of myself),” she said. “I’m really hopeful that in the end, I’m going to say, ‘Oh, you know what, even though it took a lot of years and I didn’t learn until I was almost 60, it had to be that way.’”

Bucky affirmed her statement.

“People have so many different obstacles that they face, but her story is really inspiring,” Bucky said. “Like that you can face really difficult circumstances but still rise above them and find ways to overcome.”

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    Alfie BasileMar 4, 2024 at 10:10 am

    Very inspiring article. I thought the writers of the article did an amazing job. I hope she continues to write more of these kind of articles in the future.