Schoolin’ Life

This week officially marks the end of my academic career, the end of a very long chapter in my life, and one of my biggest accomplishments. As I am getting ready to start all of the graduation ceremonies that are coming my way, I wanted to share the story of my academic journey – the ups and down, highs and lows. The path I took to get to this point was not easy, and what’s ahead of me is not necessarily clear, but I learned a lot about myself in the process and I cannot wait to apply what I’ve learned.

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For me, it’s only right to start this story at the very beginning – as a young Brown girl, growing up in Mesa, Arizona. Ever since I can remember, education was important to me and I knew I wanted to go to college. I was fortunate to come from a family of highly educated women, on both sides of my family. My mother immigrated to the United States from Brazil when she was 16 years old to complete high school. She moved back to Brazil after graduation and began pursuing her Bachelor’s at the Universidade de Pernambuco in her hometown of Recife. This was a time of extreme political unrest in Brazil and many students were organizing against the military dictatorship. My mother eventually moved back to the United States to complete her degree at Oberlin College in Ohio. Afterwards she pursued her Masters at the University of California, Berkeley.

My mother wasn’t the only highly educated women in my family. My father’s sisters all went to college – Arizona State, UC Berkley and Stanford. When I was growing up, I saw my favorite cousin complete her Bachelor’s at UCLA and went on to earn her Master’s at Harvard University. While I didn’t have many resources in high school to help me navigate the college admissions process, I had the example of all of these amazing women to show me that it was possible and that I was capable. These women were the backbone and the foundation for my own academic journey.

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Although I had my heart set on attending Stanford University for my undergrad, I ended up going to Arizona State University with a merit scholarship that paid for the entirety of my tuition. While I was disappointed I didn’t go to my dream school, I could not have been happier with my experience. I was able to switch my major a few times until I found the right fit for me, I joined an amazing Latina-founded Sorority and made life-long friends, and I got to spend a semester abroad in São Paulo, Brazil learning more about my roots, my culture and myself. The best part was graduating DEBT FREE from a four year university with my Bachelor’s in Justice Studies, minor in Political Science and a certificate in Human Rights. But the toughest questions I had to answer was “What’s next?”

I knew upon graduating that I was not ready to pursue my masters right away. I needed a break – college was an exciting time in my life, but I was burnt out. For four years, I lived and breathed college – I worked there, had class there and socialized there. I would often have 12-16 hour days on campus and knew that I needed to take a step back. I needed to take a step back to really figure out what I wanted to do with my life. Furthermore, I knew that I wasn’t going to be as fortunate to graduate with my Master’s debt free, so the decision had to be the right one.

But despite my accomplishments and my plan to do what was right for me, I still had countless people tell me I would never go back to get my Master’s if I didn’t start right away. I love proving people wrong about what I’m capable of.

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Over the three years before applying to USC, I researched several options. I looked at a number of different programs, but nothing caught my attention and when I would look at cost of attendance it would almost send me into cardiac arrest. I had honestly never thought about attending the University of Southern California, but I had two sorority sisters graduate with their masters who enjoyed their experience. At the time, I was working for my friend and entrepreneur, Bethany Yellowtail, and became inspired  to look into a business program. A quick search online lead me to discover the Masters of Science in Social Entrepreneurship program, and I just knew it was the place for me.

A social enterprise is an organization that generates earned revenue while being mission focused, with the hopes of balancing financial and social returns. The program focused on teaching business skills and strategies, while inspiring students to create innovative solutions to some of the worlds most pressing issues – hunger, homelessness, education, poverty. This program attracted me because I would be able to get the business acumen I was looking for, while continuing to work on issues I was passionate about. So with a heart full of dreams I applied, interviewed and was accepted.

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I had never struggled with school before, it was always something that came easy for me. Balancing school and work, doing homework, studying for exam – all of that was cake. I was not prepared for the struggles I would have in my graduate program. While I loved my program and was in the classroom full of diverse students (about 70% of my cohort were women, and about 50% people of color) I was weighed down by the overwhelming privilege that comes with attending a PWI (predominately white institution). For the first time in my academic career, I felt as though I was somewhere I did not belong.

My struggles were further exacerbated by the stress of having to take out student loans. Although I was comfortable with the cost of attendance when I applied, the reality of taking out those loans hit me extremely hard. There were nights where I would lay in bed with my partner, in tears due to the stress of having to take out loans each semester, questioning if this investment would actually pay off.

I was constantly conflicted about whether my timing was right – what was the point of pursing my degree when my professional resume was not up to par? How would future employers see me when my academic achievements outweighed my career experience – Over-educated and under-qualified? What jobs could I actually get when I was done? Would I even be able to get a job that provided me with sufficient enough salary to pay these damn loans off?

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As hard as it was, I could not deny the fact that I loved what I was learning. I was gaining business skills and acumen that I had lacked before, and I was accomplishing one of my life’s biggest goals. I pushed myself beyond my limits, I stayed in it when all I wanted to do was drop out, I invested and believed in myself more than I ever had before.

To know that I am now one of the 4% of Latinos in the United States that have a master’s degree makes me incredibly proud. I overcame all the barriers and obstacles that were placed before me, and I will be walking across a stage to receive my degree from an institution that historically tried to exclude people from my background. I achieved something so many people told me was impossible.

But this accomplishment is not mine alone. It is a testimony to my Mother, and all the women in my family who inspired me and encouraged me. It was made possible by all the educators and leaders I worked with who showed me I could make it happen. And I achieved it with the love and support of my partner, who supported me every step of the way.

I cannot wait to see what the future has in store. Just wait to see what I do next.

Con Mucho Amor,

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Photography By: Briana Leyva – www.brianaleyva.com

Location – University of Southern California

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