Friday, November 22, 2013

Graduation Reflection

Throughout my career in the world of credit unions and technology I have often battled with the fact that people assumed I had a college education. I guess there was no blaming them; the jobs I have held over the past sixteen years have all had degree requirements. I overcame those obstacles with hard work and dedication and my own stubbornness for not letting anyone tell me I can’t do something, but when people assumed I had a degree it always bothered me. Who were they to assume that a piece of paper mattered?
I grew up with the idea that college was more an aspiration than an expectation. I saw my parents struggle through their own lives and the daily battle to keep afloat sometimes even drained what hopes and dreams they had for me. Many people don’t know this but they didn't go to college. If you have ever had the pleasure of meeting them you never would have guessed. I think this was part of my avoidance in pursuing higher education for so long.
My father worked tooth and nail to rise through the ranks of the government to achieve great success on his own merits and for that inspiration and motivation I will forever be thankful. My mother fought hard against some of the worst odds one can imagine, and with grace set an example for me that built my character and strength on which I have survived all these years. My respect for both of them has grown exponentially over the years as I have raised my own daughter. They both have instilled values and morals with me that will remain forever. My father passed in 2001 and when life milestones hit, I take comfort in knowing he’s still watching over me and knows how much I love and miss him. My mother continues to inspire and support me throughout life’s ups and downs. She is my rock.
A child of divorce, I remember the projects we lived in on Wayne Avenue, a tough neighborhood on the wrong side of the tracks in a small Podunk town. My mother always made sure to make us feel like we had a home even when we had very little. At the time I was unaware of what it meant to live in government housing and what that must have been like for her. As hard working, single mother, she gave everything for us so that we could be given the best education and chance to succeed in life. Her strength gave us what we needed to succeed, but the road was not an easy one. She taught me that anything is possible, even when others tell you it’s not. As I raise my own daughter I can only hope to be half of what my mother was for me.
Looking back, I grew up in a world of unlimited opportunity. Our home might have been short of fancy clothes, the latest gadgets, and the things that kids seem to expect as the norm these days, but my home was always full of books.  Each night I would read, and reading opened up the world to me.  I love reading history and especially biographies. There was a series of books called Value Tales that were sold in the grocery store. I got excited every time we had a little extra money and could get a new one so I could learn about the amazing people who had lived before me.  In biographies, you are almost always reading about people who started out unimportant but ended up having a significant life. At a young age I was determined to live a life that could one day be momentous. I'm still determined.
Growing up I had my own trials and tribulations. The events of my teen years nearly cut short this amazing life I have been able to live, but again I was given the strength and support I needed to survive and this time from an at the time unexpected source. I was the most impossible teenager; stubborn, wild, and a perfect example of the opposite of what I want my own daughter to be. My Stepfather and I did not have a good relationship during my teen years, but looking back now as an adult it’s his tough love and never-ending push for me to live a better life that got me over the tough parts. I am blessed to have him in my life and count him in the top ranks of my mentors and people who helped me reach this milestone.
After surviving being a teenager and graduating high school at 16, I was not ready to make informed decisions about my future. I had an opportunity to attend college which I never dreamed would happen. I wasted that opportunity and stupidly dropped out on the first day because I felt that there was nothing they could teach me that I didn’t already know. I reflect back a lot on that day and wonder what life would be like had I made a better decision
Part luck, part stubbornness, I did survive the next 14 years, and did quite well for myself. I ran and owned my own catering and event business. I started a job working for a small California credit union as a teller (for 1 entire week) and then realized they had an opening in the computer room and that seemed like it might be more fun.
That first opportunity, that data center and its 9-track reel tapes and phone coupler modems opened up my eyes to the possibilities ahead of me. At a conference in San Diego one night, upon returning from dinner with a long walk along the bay, my CEO Diana Dykstra gave me a few words that changed my career path forever. In talking about work and prioritizing my initiatives she told me “Don’t give them what they ask for, give them what they need”. Those words set off a firestorm in my brain and I have spent my career attempting to live up to this amazing advice. Having someone who believes in you will help you change the world. Diana was that person for me. I am truly grateful for her early mentorship and trust in me. It kicked off so many great things in my life.
The next ten years I spent doing everything I could to self-educate on technology and explore the limitless possibilities that were out there in the solution space. College was still not part of the process for me because that stubborn brain of mine still fought the traditional roles in society. I didn’t need a piece of paper to tell me I was smart.  It wasn’t until moving to San Antonio and having a daughter of my own that I started to consider what I wanted for her and what it would take to ensure a future for her.
My daughter is my light. When I feel like giving up or something is impossible, all I have to do is think of her and I am instantly reinvigorated. No task is too big, no problem to solve impossible, because I would do anything to give her the world. When she skipped Kindergarten and entered the first grade my heart skipped a beat. This little genius of mine needed support for her education. I wanted her to have a college education and as my parents did for me, I wanted more for her than what I had in life. On that very day I decided I had to set an example for her and obtain my own college degree.
I immediately started searching out schools and possibilities. Most of my friends were all graduated with Masters and some even PHD’s and all I had was a high school diploma to my name. I also saw the student debt and the mounting costs of what college was for my friends and again I was terrified of trying to figure out how to make this happen. They balked at the idea and often made comments like “why do the work, you already have the job”. But Emma is my light and I knew she was the why and that I’d find a way. She was worth it.
In my research at work I came across a document entitled “Tuition Reimbursement Program”. This benefit for all SACU employees states that any employee who works 25 or more hours a week was entitled to 100% reimbursement of higher education up to $5,250 per calendar year. At first I thought it was a typo and too good to be true. I had already found a school willing to take me on at a discounted rate, and had figured out that if I took six years to complete my degree I could budget $5,000 a year towards my goal. This discovery now meant no budgeting was required and I could achieve my goal for free. No student loan debt. No out of pocket costs. No more excuses for not going after a college degree. Suddenly the impossible was becoming possible and free.
In the past 5 and half years I have had the full support of my employer and managers in my various roles. Melissa Zahn and Yvonne Garibay in App Dev, Zandy Reinshagen in eServices.  These amazing women – who are all college educated technology professional role models for me, gave me the support and inspiration to keep after my goal year after year, test after test, and exam after grueling exam. In my head I couldn’t let them down. I didn’t want to fail. I couldn’t fail. This degree was no longer only about my daughter Emma. I wanted this degree for me.
The tuition reimbursement program required that grades must be A’s or B’s for reimbursement. Because of this I gave it my all and when I got my first B I was heartbroken. I almost quit the entire program over the fear of not succeeding. Then a helpful hint in the form of laughter at my distress from Zandy brought me back around. She reminded me that my being an overachiever was standing in my way. She reminded me to put my ego in check and work for what I wanted. She helped ground me back in reality and I set back on course and made straight A’s from that day on.  I even added a few classes to weight out the B. I owe my honors to Zandy for keeping me grounded. Left unchecked I am my own worst enemy. She helped me grow from an egotistical superstar to a successful student and professional.
The past six years haven’t been easy. In addition to being a part time student, carrying 1-2 classes every semester, doing homework until 2 am so it didn’t interfere with my time at work or with my family and friends, I have also navigated my way through a divorce, created a home for my daughter as a single mom, and doing everything in my power to keep checking off dreams on my bucket list. Then I found out my baby brother had started college. I immediately doubled up on classes. In addition to needing to have a degree before my own daughter started college there was no way I was going to let him beat me to the finish line. Sibling rivalry is a great thing. I am so proud of my brother Duke and can’t wait to celebrate his upcoming graduation. Our family has come so far and our Dad would be so proud of how far his kids have come against all odds. I know Mom is. I can see it on her face every time I see her.
I refused to quit or give up, and the persistence, motivation, and dedication finally paid off. This awkward tall girl from the projects on Wayne Avenue can now say with glowing pride that I am a college graduate.  When I fill out a survey, that aching pit in my stomach next to “highest level of education” is gone. Not only that but with not just one but two degrees. In the past six years I also became a certified Cicerone (beer expert), raised an amazing gifted and talented little girl who will rule the world, traveled to 6 countries, and found the love of my life. I am living my dreams. Not just one of them. All of them.
The icing on the cake is I did all of this with zero loan debt and zero out of pocket costs. I owe this amazing and generous gift to SACU. They footed the entire bill – books, tuition, everything. This benefit goes above and beyond any expectations I have ever had for any employer ever. They already have given me my dream job as a Technology Solutions Architect in the eServices division. I can never thank them enough for their generosity and support. This employee benefit is at the top of my long list for why SACU is the best place in the world to work.
I am thankful to be blessed and surrounded with so many amazing people in my life. And this graduation is only the beginning of so many more great things to come.  I plan to continue on through my masters and beyond. The most important lessons I have absorbed through this experience are that learning is a lifetime activity and that anything is possible and to always dream big.
My advice to anyone who thinks they don’t need a degree is that they are absolutely right. You can do great things without a diploma. But let me tell you how many more things you can do and how much more possibility becomes visible when you pursue it. I didn’t need my degree to do what I have already done. But now I know how much more potential I have and have great aspirations for what I will do with my amazing future.

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