Amanda Yates has no plans to leave Valley Center, where she grew up—and where her family’s house burned in 2003. Now she’s set to graduate with a degree in business.

SAN MARCOS — Born and raised in Valley Center, Amanda Yates came to Palomar College in 2019 as a Business major and cheerleader with hopes of staying close to her family’s roots in rural North County.

She took advantage of the Palomar Promise, which offers up to two years of free tuition, textbooks and other support to first-time college students.

Now she is poised to graduate in May 2022. Yates, 20, recently reflected on her time at Palomar and a lifetime of experiences in the region that led to her decision to study business.

In 2003, when she was a little girl, her family’s home near Valley Center High School burned in the Paradise Fire. In the process of recovering and rebuilding, her parents, Kevin and Wendy Yates, launched a nonprofit called Nurtured by Nature—now a well-known “​​swim-with-the-otters” program—and a family business, Animal Educators. Kevin Yates was a zookeeper at the San Diego Safari Park for 30 years.

“We were taken aback by how the community took care of us, providing us with clothes, food—whatever we needed,” Amanda recalled. “My parents really wanted to give back. That’s how Nurture by Nature started. We provide exotic animal interactions—what we’re popular for is otter swims with Make A Wish kids.”

Six years ago, in keeping with the theme, the Yates family purchased a piece of property in Pauma Valley and turned it into an event venue called Otter Valley.

When it was time to enroll in her first classes at Palomar, Yates knew she wanted to stay in the area and contribute, but wasn’t sure what to study.

“I thought I’d pursue something that’s broad and useful,” she said, “and I decided I’m going to continue with my family’s business and focus on the event-planning side of it.”

On staying in Valley Center, she said: “I know there are a lot of people who want to get out of the small town and explore. I get it—I love traveling and exploring, but I always love to come home to Valley Center. I can’t imagine being anywhere else.”

As a Palomar Comets cheerleader, Yates said she has had access to first-rate athletic counseling, as well as a supportive community on campus: “You’re new, you’re nervous, you don’t know anyone—but my cheer team, on the first day, some of the older girls were like, ‘Do you need help finding your classes and your textbooks?’”

She added that she is excited to get back to cheering: “We’re finally back on the sidelines cheering for our football team, and eventually basketball and other sports. It’s really nice to be back on the field, doing what we love.”

Yates has also participated in the Miss Valley Center pageant, and spent one year as Junior Miss Valley Center. She said she plans to participate in the pageant again.