Sonia Garcia-Tillson

MCC Student Turns People Skills into Mortuary Science Career

Sonia Garcia-Tillson - Associate in Applied Science - Mortuary ScienceSonia Garcia-Tillson - Associate in Applied Science - Mortuary Science Mesa Community College student Sonia Garcia-Tillson believes she has found her true calling.

After more than 30 years in real estate, banking and insurance, Sonia has put her customer relations skills to use in the mortuary field, assisting people with one of the most sensitive and emotional decisions we can make in life.

It’s not that different from her previous employment, Sonia said. In all of them, you’re working to help people feel comfortable and assured of their decision. That’s a skill Sonia has honed during her adult life.

It hasn’t been easy. Not with seven children and 10 grandchildren (a single mother now, four of her children and four of her grandchildren are currently living with her). Sonia drives 96 miles a day to attend classes. She credits her mother for her tenacity, hard work and faith that “somehow it all works out.”

It was while she was working as their Personal Banker in Sun City that her path first crossed with Mr. George Menke of Menke Funeral Home of Sun City, and soon after, Mr. Murphy of Whitney & Murphy Funeral Home of Phoenix. She parlayed her work experience and currently utilizes her insurance license as a pre-arrangement funeral counselor with both funeral businesses.

“They could see how I had great passion, genuine concern and they saw my patience for my customers’ needs as I assisted them on a daily basis,” Sonia said of the funeral homes. “The goal is to help customers during the grieving process, and I felt a calling. I felt blessed to have been asked to join the mortuary industry at that time. I asked the funeral home how I could do this full time, and they said ‘let’s go to school.’ That’s how I found Mesa Community College and its Mortuary Science Program.”

MCC’s nationally-recognized Mortuary Science Program was founded by Program Director Dr. Thomas Taggart in 1995 and has more than 250 graduates, many of them now active in the funeral industry. It is the only program of its kind among Arizona’s community colleges, and one of 56 programs nationwide.

MCC announced in February that the Mortuary Science program, which is housed at the Williams Campus, will transition to Chandler-Gilbert Community College beginning with the fall 2016 semester. CGCC has a much larger footprint at Williams, and the move will be more convenient for students, who can now avail themselves of CGCC student services at Williams rather than driving to one of MCC's other campuses. Because both institutions are among the Maricopa Community Colleges, the transition for students and the program—which is staying at Williams—should be seamless.

In 2005 the program’s founder, Dr. Thomas Taggart, started one of the few cremation certification programs in the nation. Sonia has already completed her training for cremation, and is now a certified Cremator Operator. She has joined AZ Funeral, Cemetery & Cremation Association and National Funeral Directors Association which she feels is a great stepping stone to learn more about her new chosen career. She is scheduled to graduate in May from MCC with an Associate of Applied Science degree in Mortuary Science, and plans to have her Mortician’s license by June. Her goal is to become a funeral director and eventually own her own funeral home.

Because of Sonia’s high grade point average, she has been invited to join Phi Theta Kappa National Honors Society, and, as a member of the mortuary science program, she has also joined Tau Chapter of Sigma Phi Sigma, the Social Fraternity representing students in the funeral service all across the Nation. She has joined the AZ Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and Chicanos Por La Causa, Inc. to help with networking, promotions, sponsors, mentors and benefactors in the Hispanic Community. This is where being bilingual will be a great asset, for she feels it is a great honor to help the community with their funeral needs.

“I absolutely do feel that the Mortuary Science program has prepared me for my chosen field,” Sonia said, crediting Dr. Taggart and instructor Donna Backhaus for helping her “develop the proficiency and skills” necessary for the profession. “They educate students concerning the responsibilities of the funeral service profession and emphasize high standards of ethical conduct.”

Sonia added that the AAS degree program in Mortuary Science also includes studies in public health, business management, natural sciences, legal, ethical and regulatory concerns, and clinical requirements associated with the mortuary field.

“It is a very sensitive industry, and I feel honored to be able to be there to help someone through one of their worst days of life, or at least try to make it a bit more bearable for them,” Sonia said. “I long to utilize my Embalmers, Insurance and Real Estate licenses to better assist our customers in every aspect of customer service that Funeral Homes have to offer.”

“I want to be there to help somebody who can’t help themselves,” Sonia said of her guiding philosophy. “It could make all the difference in their lives. If I could, I would change my persona to a guardian angel.”