"All our dreams can come true if we have the courage to pursue them." —Walt Disney
Spring of 2017, a colleague approached me about a master’s program that was being made available online, the MMIS program provided by the Huntsman School of Business. As an on-campus employee, I could be a hybrid and take both online and on-campus classes. Intrigued, I figured “sure, why not, let’s try it!”.
Let me take you back a few years, about 27 years to be exact. I arrived in the US on May 10th, I was 14 years old. At the time, I spoke one word of English, just one! “Hamburger”. I learned it on the plane from California to NY. Ha! Yes, it proves one thing, my life revolves around food!
When I arrived, I had two jobs, as a sewing worker, and delivering newspapers that contained the ads for the local stores. I worked delivering papers from 3:30am-7:30am, then I went to the factory to sew blankets from 8-6pm. It was grand! I was living the American dream, working, earning money and not suffering as I was suffering back at home. We had food, so much food. If we wanted to eat steak every day, we could eat steak. Back at home, we had steak maybe once a month! I was having the time of my life and in a sense, I was progressing. However, my heart yearned to be like all the other teens around me. I would see them at the mall on Sundays, wearing cute clothes and chatting with one another. Me, I was there to eat out at the food court with my mom and aunt. Life was not rough, do not get me wrong, it was a good life. We had a great apartment, we had great food--all the time, and we had each other. But, I wanted more. I wanted more for my future than working 4am-7pm. I wanted to learn the language and get a nice job that didn’t require me to work on a sewing machine (I am terrified of those monsters!). Maybe a job at one of the stores at the mall (silly me!), where the girls looked always happy and well dressed.
The following year, I begged my mom to let me go to school. I didn’t know what I was asking her at the time. I was being selfish and only thinking of me and not the sacrifice that it meant for her and my aunt. After a little coercing, she registered me in school. Why did I have to ask? Simple, you come to the US to make a better living. If you work, you are earning money. No work, no money. One less person working at home meant less money. It was a sacrifice for my mom, she now had the responsibility to support me and my foolish dreams of going to school. A roof over my head is expensive, food on the table is expensive, clothes are expensive, books…all of that meant someone had to pay for it.
The first two years of high school were rough. My knowledge of the English language was subpar, to say the least. I was placed in ESL classes for all my courses. (And if you are reading this and shaking your head at my writing, remember kindly that English is my second language). It was humbling on many levels. Not only did I not know the language, but the only thing that I could do without having to translate was math. All the other subjects took me forever to get through.
Over the next few years, I became the number one consumer of Folger’s coffee in Queens, NY. I slept probably an average of 3hrs per night. I would read my assignments, translate them with a dictionary, read them again, write the stuff in Spanish, then translate it to English. A lot of the time, my mom would fix me breakfast and she would find the pot of coffee in my room, my books all over my bed, and mountains of paper, so much paper! I watched tv solely in English and listened to the radio only in English—this was a hardship at home as we didn’t understand what we were watching, but my family knew that I had to immerse myself in the language.
Senior year arrived and I realized that I had nothing to put on a college application. I had dedicated every spare moment of my life to learning the language. I hadn’t had the time to do anything else beyond studying the classes on my curriculum. School was my full-time job. But, I knew that if I wanted a chance at college, I had to show more than my ability to “study”. I made it a point to join as many clubs as I could so that I wouldn’t look like a total loser on those college applications. I enrolled in a couple of concurrent classes and even took AP Biology. Yes, I was going places, ha!
Then, I met with my counselor. I came out of that visit with a heavy heart. It turned out that you needed money, a lot of money to go to college. Money that we didn’t have. And the government couldn’t help with a grant or even loans, because of my “status”. It turns out that in order to live an American dream, you have to be “American” to enjoy the privilege of that dream. I went home and I cried; I cried out of anger and frustration. How come merit and hard work didn’t count? How come my grade point average and my dedication amounted to nothing in the eyes of an institution? It was a sobering moment. Those with barely a grade point average to “pass” classes were getting accepted and I wasn’t.
Then something wonderful happened. I met some wonderful individuals who knew the system, and they helped me out. One lady in particular, she saw my potential and decided to give me a shot. A shot in the amount of my first-year tuition! She believed in me and in what I could achieve. Not only did she teach me English and the awesome game of Scrabble, but she taught me that there are people out there willing to help you without wanting anything in return. Judith C. Protas, you made my entire academic career possible!!!
I put out my college applications, one to the most well-known community college, Baruch College, a business school. I took my SATs and I hoped for the best. I figured that if I couldn’t get into Baruch that I was already a shoo-in for Queensborough College due to my concurrent enrollment. Anticipation was high and I waited for my rejection/acceptance letters. I did it!!! I got into Baruch. My declared major: computer science. Yeah, you can laugh it up. I didn’t even have a computer at home!
My college years were great. I loved academia! I loved learning new subjects and discovering new worlds. I became involved in clubs and even became an officer in the Golden Key National Honor Society (GK). The team of officers became my family; my advisor became my mentor. Together they made me realize that I had something to offer this world, beyond sewing blankets and delivering newspapers. I grew into a person who loved and thrived in “people settings”. Customer relations became my thing! Talking to students and mentoring students made my heart sing. Recruiting them into the society and celebrating with them their achievements gave me joy. In my junior year, I took an earth science class and I became enamored with the subject. The confidence that belonging to GK gave me, propelled me to find a school that offered a Geology major. It landed me at Utah State University (USU).
I transferred as a senior and I became a super senior at USU. After I transferred, my advisor told me that although all of my credits transferred, in respect to the Geology major I was only a freshman. There was no way in hell I was going to start from scratch. I didn’t have the money, nor the time to start from scratch. Consequently, I switched to Business Information Systems (BIS).
Our lives have branches that give us opportunities for different adventures. My adventure landed me a husband from Cache Valley, Utah, and soon after, our first child. A baby meant that I wanted to be home and not actively working. A BIS degree "could" be obsolete when and if I did go back into the workforce. So, I switched to a “safe” degree, Business Administration.
Bryant, my firstborn came along in January of 2002, I still had a few courses that I had to finish online to complete my degree. The idea of quitting my degree was never an option. The degree meant that all my hard work, and most importantly my mom’s sacrifice was worth it. I had to finish it. I graduated the following year with an overall GPA of 3.51. It was a year of celebration! I did it! I had graduated with a bachelor’s degree. The first one in my entire family ever to achieve this much of schooling. My momma came to my graduation and she was beyond herself. I had never seen her so proud of me. She gave me all the praise, yet she didn’t realize that I couldn’t have done it without her sacrifice in those early years of high school. She worked twice as hard so I didn’t have to.
When one is a first generation, the child of immigrants, and the first in the family to go to college, the sacrifices are many. Everyone in the family has to work so hard on many levels: language, culture, financial. It takes a community to help you. It is a win for not only the individual, but to the family, and community of supporters.
So when my colleague came to me in the spring of 2017 with this great opportunity, I knew that I had to take a chance. This was it! My chance to finally go after that degree that I had sought from the beginning, something to do with computers and technology. I took the chance and ran with it! I applied and got accepted!!!
For two years, I worked full-time, held a part-time job, and took 6 graduate-level credits per semester. In my spare time, meaning in the very early hours of the day, I ran my heart out so that I could have the stamina to meet all of my demands during the day. During those two years, I ran a total of 6 marathons and ran over 3000 miles.
My master’s degree is a culmination of a life-long dream. Formal education to people with my socio-economic background is not a given. It is a privilege that not many of us get. I am blessed to have been given the opportunity to follow my dreams. Making my dreams a reality would not have been possible without the many sacrifices from my family. My mom who believed in me back when I was 15 and gave me the chance to enroll in high school. My grandparents, who took me in as their "pilon" and raised me when my mom left to make a better future in the United States. Without my abuelitos, I wouldn’t be the person I am today. Hard work was part of our daily life. "Tears do not fix it, wipe the tears and keep on shoveling" (yes, there is a story behind that line). My hubby, who took care of our children when I was studying, or out running to save my mind from insanity. Knowing that my children were taken care of and provided while I followed this crazy dream gave me peace of mind. My children who babysat our little rainbow baby so that I could study. My 14-year old daughter who became my helper at home. She cooked, she cleaned and did the dishes without being asked. She simply saw that it needed to be done, and she did it. My son, who has shown me almost every day of his life what hard work and dedication looks like. My little toddler, who was barely a few months old when I enrolled. She brought me joy and peace whenever I needed it. Her hugs and love made every hard day at work and school disappear. And last, but not least in any way, my community of supporters, ranging from friends to mentors.
I don’t really know what the future holds for me. All I know is that if you really want something in life, you can achieve it if you put forth the work. There are many people you will encounter along your journey that will doubt you, or make you feel less because of where you came from. But for every one of those people, there are 5 out there cheering for you. Focus on the 5 who cheer for you. Most importantly, do not doubt that you can accomplish something. It may take you years to accomplish it, but as long as you make progress towards that goal, you are winning in my book. Here I am, proof that you can do anything!!! Because if I can do it, I know you can too!
Judith, as you look down from heaven, know that your investment paid off. I didn't fail you. You took a chance and I ran with it!
Now patiently awaiting the posting of my degree to my transcript...and hit refresh on that page one more time.
A special shout out to my friend Nicole from SteppingStones for taking and gifting me some bombastic grad pictures!!!