In Their Own Words | A Long But Rewarding Path to Higher Education
There are many things in life one lives to regret. For me, a major one was quitting my college studies back in 1982. At the time, I thought I had made the right choice. I considered factors that led me to that fateful conclusion, and at the time, at least for me, it was a justified decision. However, I would look back on it in the intervening years and see the consequences it wrought. I could not apply for roles I was well qualified for due to my lack of a degree and passed over for promotions for the same reason. I faced significant hurdles in my work-life to attain what I did, and often many well-meaning managers and colleagues reminded me that a college degree would have significantly changed my trajectory in life. So, I wondered if that was true and pondered whether I had it in me to go back and finish what I started so long ago.
In his book of inspirational quotes, author Roy T. Bennett says, “Don't be pushed around by the fears in your mind. Be led by the dreams in your heart.” College for me was an ambition instilled by my Abuelita Crescy. She gave up her dream of being an educator to come to this country and make a better life for herself and her daughter. Widowed at the age of 22, she went to college and completed her degree in education in Puerto Rico. She then worked a few years as a schoolteacher on the island, but times being what they were, it did not afford her the life she sought for herself and her child. So instead, in 1949, she came to the United States. Like so many other migrant workers from the island, Abuelita arrived dreaming of a better life on these shores. However, without the necessary language skills to continue practicing her profession, she toiled in a factory in the States. She did this for the rest of her work life, and in that way, supported herself and her family.
“College for me was an ambition instilled by my Abuelita Crescy. She gave up her dream of being an educator to come to this country and make a better life for herself and her daughter.”
Abuelita was my first teacher. I remember sitting on her lap and learning to read books in Spanish and English at a very young age. Because of her, both my sister and I entered school reading and writing in both languages. She was our caregiver, tutor, confidante, and biggest cheerleader throughout our formative years. Whatever we wanted to do, she supported. At first, I wanted to be an educator like her. Then I discovered drawing and wanted to be an artist. She encouraged me in all my endeavors, but most of all, she planted the seed of higher education. She was the first one in her large family to go to school and obtain a degree, and she wanted that for me. Even if her aspirations never came to full fruition, she knew it would be different for me, so she gently pushed me in that direction. I always knew she wanted this for me, and I wanted it too.
I attended the High School of Art & Design in New York City from 1976 to 1980. Back then, I was a fresh-faced 18-year-old high-achieving student seemingly ready to face the challenges of post-secondary education. But I was not prepared at all. During my high school years, our home was turbulent and chaotic, wrought by my father's final abandonment of his family in the Summer of 1977. This circumstance disrupted my sophomore year of high school and academics to the point where I attended summer school the following year. However, by the time I started community college in the fall of 1980, our home life had seemingly calmed to a degree. My mother was doing her best to provide us with a stable home. Unfortunately, she had begun to suffer ailments that would eventually lead to a chronic disability and no longer being able to work. Our finances suffered. We were barely able to keep food on the table.
As the oldest of my siblings, I always felt the burden of being the example. I was supposed to finish my studies, and that included college. As it turned out, I was the only one to finish my high school studies, although eventually, my siblings obtained their general equivalency diplomas (GEDs), and my younger sister ultimately earned a college degree. I went to community college for two years with that obligation in mind, but my heart was not in it. As I tried to focus on my studies, I watched my mother struggle to keep up with the needs of our home. She tried to put on a brave face through it all, as I know she did not want me to disrupt my studies, but it was too late. All I could think about was that she had sold or pawned all she had to put food on our table. Finally, I began to feel an urgent need to help her. I was twenty years old, and I knew that my liberal arts education was not preparing me to work. So, I made a difficult and unpopular decision. My mother and grandmother were vehemently against it, but I was determined. I left my college studies for the first time in 1982, resolute to find a way to work and help my family.
“As I tried to focus on my studies, I watched my mother struggle to keep up with the needs of our home…All I could think about was that she had sold or pawned all she had to put food on our table…I left my college studies for the first time in 1982, resolute to find a way to work and help my family.”
I was 21 years old when I began my first full-time job. I was at the bank for a little over a year and a half, and then a Spanish-language Ad agency. Then, in March of 1985 I learned of an opportunity at the Pharmaceutical company where both my sisters had landed jobs. It was a customer service role, and they thought I would be perfect for it. I applied, and because the Company office on Park Avenue was less than ten blocks from the Ad agency, I walked over on my lunch hour and interviewed for the role. I recall from that experience hearing that the Company wanted degree candidates for the position; however, since I had completed two years of college studies, they considered that and offered me the role. So, I moved from the Ad agency to the Pharma company, where I remained in evolving roles for over twenty years. I also re-enrolled in college in 1997, completing one semester. Unfortunately, I dropped out after discovering I was pregnant with my second child. Nevertheless, it seemed like the best decision at the time.
In 2005, my company decided to relocate. They made a very generous offer to employees that included relocation assistance and funds for a down payment on a house. Still, after a few months of consideration, my family and I decided not to go. It was the best decision at the time because, unknown to me just a month later, my mother, who had been battling health issues while simultaneously providing childcare for me, suffered a brain bleed. Within three months, she passed away. So, I was both unemployed and grieving, two unequal circumstances, but no less consequential for my family and me at the time.
I received a severance package, which offered me some time to mourn without the worry of caring for my family. In early 2006, when my severance ran out, I applied for unemployment for the first time. I hoped that with my many years of experience in the corporate sector and the excellent references I had compiled, I would find another position reasonably quickly, but that was not the case. I applied to many jobs in the intervening months without much success. For the most part, many of them required Bachelors' degrees, which I did not have. I felt defeated during that period and, at times, hopeless as the days progressed with no good job prospects on the horizon. Finally, in mid-September of 2006, I applied for a supervisor role at a university downtown. As I had often had to do, I went into the interview process with a sell myself mindset. I was grateful that they had considered my application despite my lack of a degree, but I also understood that I needed to demonstrate once again that I had the skills and experience to do the job. The interview went well, and I received a job offer.
I started at the university in October of 2006. In 2007, I decided to take advantage of my staff status that allowed me to enroll at their school for non-traditional students seeking to attain a college degree. I started my college studies again for the third time in 2007. I was elated! Not only was I studying for my degree, but I would not have to go into debt to pay for it. All seemed to be going well. Within a year, I received a promotion from Supervisor to Manager and had begun my classes at night. Finally, I was on track to obtain the long-sought sheepskin. Everything seemed good until the recession hit in 2008.
“You know it will probably rain if you see dark clouds forming on the horizon. The year the recession hit felt just like that.”
You know it will probably rain if you see dark clouds forming on the horizon. The year the recession hit felt just like that. By October 2009, I was once again unemployed and forced to leave my college studies behind. I started collecting unemployment again and looked for work. Month after month, I submitted countless applications. So many of the positions I otherwise qualified for required degrees. I often wondered if the algorithms in these programs automatically kicked me out of the candidate process because I chose to answer truthfully I had no degree. I felt defeated and wondered if my family and I would make it for a time. My husband continued to work, but I had always been the breadwinner, paying most household bills, including rent and utilities. Unemployment compensation was not giving us enough to live on, so I pulled money out of my retirement fund, almost depleting it. Still, I could only pay the necessary bills and, unfortunately, could not pay my other creditors. Our debt grew, as did my depression, but I had to make these hard choices. Keeping a roof over our heads and feeding my family was always the priority. I am a person of faith, and it felt like a tremendous season of testing had once again arrived and was persisting. I could only trust that God would take care of our needs, and He always did. As lean as it was financially, we were never late with our rent or went hungry through that entire period. For that, I am grateful.
My daily practice became looking for employment and applying for jobs. I must have put in applications for hundreds of positions during that period, and I did not hear back from most of these employers. As a result, I went to the unemployment office more than once, seeking assistance. Finally, in June 2011, I saw a listing for an Administrative Coordinator position at another smaller college close to home. Unfortunately, according to the job description, the role once again required a college degree. I looked at the position description closely and determined that I had all the qualifications for the role. Still, I hesitated and did not apply immediately for obvious reasons. Instead, I bookmarked it and kept looking. But something gnawed at me, and I kept thinking about the role. It seemed perfect for me. Over time, I had practiced my cover letter writing skills and decided I needed to write the perfect one. In the body of the letter, I lauded my maturity and tremendous and lengthy work experience. Remarkably, it worked, and I interviewed for the position. There were many prayers before that appointment because I desperately needed a job, and they worked. Finally, after almost two years of unemployment, I was hired and started working again in July of 2011.
I became part of an incredible team working on a federal project at the college. I knew the position was grant-funded and would end by 2015, but I was so happy to be working again, so I figured I would cross that bridge when I got to it. I learned so much during that period. My immediate supervisor, a former Columbia University professor, became my mentor. The Columbia Morningside campus was just a few short blocks away from my workplace, so I began to think about the possibility of going there to finish my degree. I applied to the Columbia University School of General Studies with her encouragement and offer of flexibility. I was accepted, and in the Spring of 2015, I began my college studies for the final time.
“I would describe my overall GS experience as one of the best seasons of my life.”
I would describe my overall GS experience as one of the best seasons of my life. Even though it took me a long time (7 years studying part-time while working full-time, and this was my 4th attempt at college), completing my degree and doing so with a decent GPA is what I consider my greatest accomplishment. I learned so much from all the wonderful professors that I had through my course of study and the brilliance of my fellow students always left me in awe. I felt privileged to be among them even as the oldest in the classroom most of the time. I also had the amazing benefit of sharing the college experience with my son who was part of the class of 2020 at Macaulay Honors College at CCNY. I've already received my diploma and I have to say, it felt overwhelming to hold it in hand after so much time and effort put into this journey, but what a wonderful journey it was. I’m so glad to have done this at GS.
Post-degree I've been able to secure a wonderful position in a philanthropic organization working with a program called "Pathways to Postsecondary Success" that invests in nonprofits working towards finding ways to help non-traditional students like me. After a wonderful season of learning at GS, I'm now poised to take my experiences and share them with others seeking to continue their education. Going back to school may not be right for everyone, but it was for me and I have no regrets. I'm looking forward to what the future holds.
“Being a Columbia student has been a full-circle moment for me. As a youngster, my Abuelita and I would take the bus down Broadway, and as we rode past the campus, she would look at me and say, ‘Mija, this is where I want you to go to college.’”
Being a Columbia student has been a full-circle moment for me. As a youngster, my Abuelita and I would take the bus down Broadway, and as we rode past the campus, she would look at me and say, “Mija, this is where I want you to go to college.” Of course, I never believed I could attend a school like Columbia despite my stellar grades because no one but my grandmother seemed to believe in my potential. I now know that she was right, and although it took me 40 years to learn this truth, I will always be grateful for her and the few along the way who saw it too. In December of 2021, I finally achieved my goal and completed all of my requirements. In February 2022, I held in my hands a Bachelor of Arts degree in Creative Writing with a minor in Ethnicity and Race Studies from Columbia University. Abuelita, if you are looking down from Heaven, know that I did this for you and everyone else who knew that my dream deferred was not a dream denied. A heartfelt thanks to all who came along on this journey with me. To those who continue to aspire as I once did, do not give up your ambitions and goals, whatever they may be. Even if they do not come to full fruition, know that the lessons we learn along the way will undoubtedly be worth it. Of that, I am sure.
Margaret Jimenez is a member of the 2022 graduating class of GS. In Their Own Words highlights Columbia GS students' unique voices, perspectives, and experiences during their time at Columbia and beyond.