The Importance of Normalizing “Failure” and Looking Back – The Path to Stanford

17 Jan

Okay, get comfortable because I can tell this is going to be a long post.

Three years ago…

I was a first year at Stanford. I transferred in after attending many community colleges (a class here, a class there, or many failed attempts of trying to go back to school).

The years leading up to Stanford:

As an 18 yo HS grad -> attended Loyola Marymount University but for many reasons I had to drop out first semester.

To give you a sense of how many times I attempted to go back to school (and to see the shift in my circumstances from downward to upward), I attended:

LA all day – more like all the hell over LA…

  • Santa Monica College (at night):

I lived in Boyle Heights, worked full time for the City of LA as a clerk in downtown Los Angeles, and commuted via bus (think long ass commute) or getting a ride from my sometimes willing boyfriend at the time.

  • East Los Angeles Community College:

I was 20 + pregnant, nuff said.

  • Pasadena City College:

I was living in downtown LA, my girls were 3, and this was a few months after my separation with their bio donor. I was a wreck. Didn’t go well.

The Upturn – I made a ‘reasonable’ GOAL with Purpose
  • Los Angeles Community College

This was my first successful attempt at going back to school.  My girls were 6 & was 7. I was living in Chinatown (my first time living in an apt on my own (well with my babies) but no one else to depend on for the rent. I worked full time as a business development coordinator at a law firm in downtown LA. And I had my own car! I was still paycheck to paycheck BUT hey we weren’t homeless and we weren’t living with an abusive person so Life Was Good.

I leaned on my sister, mom, and many friends to help me with picking up my girls from their after school program one day a week so I could go to class 6 – 10pm. Don’t get it twisted, this was super stressful week to week. Peeps would commit to do it and then fail to show up.

The GOAL: I made an agreement with myself, you ever do that? Talk to yourself and be like “Okay Susana, we are not going to worry about that, let’s remember our goal. Remember the Goal: Take a class that you enjoy and see if you can complete it successfully.” It’s super helpful and centering.

I loved the comparative politics class. I purposefully chose a poliSci class bc I love me some history + politics. And I finished it with an A. When I saw my exam, paper, and final score I was so floored. I howled with happiness in my car. Hey! Celebrate + Congratulate yourself! 🎉

Left my Beautiful LA for the Bay Area 😢 😔 😞 😭  

  • Cañada College (Redwood City in the peninsula) Attempt 1!

I had recently moved to the bay area on a big fucking gamble and trust in myself that I was going to make it happen. I still impress myself for having the balls and self-belief to have done that move. I was hired by a top 3 global law firm as a TEMP coordinator to cover the coordinators in the Silicon Valley office during maternity. Yeah girl, as a temp. 

When one of the head honchos – I swear everyone and their mother interviewed me here – asked me, “Are you comfortable accepting a temporary position?” I answered, “I am confident that my work will speak for itself and either you will offer me a permanent position or I will have no problem securing offers from other firms.” BOOM lady. Heck yeah I was sh!tt!ng bricks with that job being temp and having 0 benefits – single mom ‘member! – but I took a gamble on myself.

That’s the thing right, when you’re fighting so hard to succeed, all you can think about is – just let me concentrate on getting this done and I will worry about that when I have to. It will work out. What other choice do you have?

They hired me on the spot and I enrolled my girls at an excellent school nearby. Everything good so far. I was still on a high from that A from LACC so I enrolled at the local community college in Redwood City into their College for Working Adults (CWA)program.

Side note: I didn’t know community colleges could be this beautiful!

Their CWA program is for working adults, all classes are offered in the evenings and weekends and you are guaranteed a spot – no waiting bc a class was full. The offer several Associate Degrees – no technical ones but I will get to that in a minute.

I started enrolled in classes, started working and then the first day of classes as I was getting ready to leave a partner in the firm caught me on my way out and asked for a pitch for a new biotech client opportunity. 😧

I couldn’t reach anyone in the BD team – I was an hourly temp, not salary – and he was insistent in a way I couldn’t say no (blocked the door as he started telling me what he needed) so I called the school and let them know I wouldn’t be able to attend. Since the first attendance was mandatory, I missed that semester.

Staying on Path: Look, there will always be circumstances that try to stop you from reaching your goal. Work (that you’re trying to leave) will get in the way. Parenting. Taking care of ailing family. A bill you didn’t plan for nor have the funds for. [insert the many ways shit 💩  can hit the fan]

But the 🔑 key is that you can’t let a stumble get you down. I took stock of my circumstances and realized I was putting a lot on my plate. I altered my immediate goal to: Be a BadAss Mother Effer at work -> get hired permanently = benefits for kids and me. So I took the energy that would have gone into the missed semester and threw so much fierceness their way that I had several partners lobbying the dept to hire me ASAP. So I got hired as a permanent coordinator and ended up taking over two positions (that shit always happens to me).

The next Semester(s)

Once I had established my reputation at work, I enrolled again and started going to class Thursday evenings form 5 – 10 PM, Saturdays 9 – 3 PM, and online. I kept this up until I managed to get all the requirements to transfer to a Cal State or UC. My dream in the sky would be to go to Berkeley. My dream, dream was to go to Stanford. I didn’t share that dream with people because sometimes people – friends, colleagues, family – can be downright negative. 👎 They think they’re doing you a favor by giving you a ‘reality check’ without any knowledge to the willpower and determination you have inside.

Shining At Work + School + Parenting + Volunteering + New Relationship

I didn’t let up on going full force at work. I stayed late all the time only to go home and work again once my girls went to bed. I regularly pulled 60-70 hour workweeks. I didn’t say no to any ‘opportunity’ (i.e. more responsibility for the same pay) and made my case to get promoted.

In less than a year and a half I went from Temp -> Coordinator -> Business Development Lead for the Technology Transactions Group and the Life Sciences Industry Group. It’s a mouthful. I worked with partners in SV, SF, NY, DC, LA, London, Dubai, and Singapore. It was exhausting but also effin exhilarating. I felt like I had a career – not just a job – and now I was salary. And it was a damn good salary period, an incredible salary for someone with only a HS degree.

Staying on Track When You Smell Other Pretty Roses

I could have become complacent with the money and the career I had carved out. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But weighing on me was my desire to get my degree.

I didn’t want to continually keep proving myself to new people when they asked where I went to school. My colleagues all graduated from top schools – many from Ivy Leagues and/or had MBAs, law degrees and/or came from affluent families. They had their network, their whiteness, and their social currency to open doors wherever they went. I grew up by McArthur Park and Boyle Heights, went to under-resourced, overcrowded, and failing inner city public schools. My parents are immigrants and didn’t go beyond elementary school. They speak broken English and broken Spanish. The only inheritance they will leave me is the generational trauma and the back tax I have been paying my whole life to help them and the lump sum back tax that I will have to pay when they pass away.

I wanted to get a degree because I was too acquainted with the oppression of poverty and I was sick of people coming up with ways to say No. 

So while I kicked ass at work, I only gave it 80% (because let’s be real Our 80% is other people’s 100%). I made relationships with my counselor, the program director, my professors. I made sure everyone knew knew me so that they would want to vouch for me.

So when it came to applying time…

I almost didn’t turn in my Stanford Application 😦 

I know, right. I worked on the main essay and getting my letters of recommendation (do it way ahead of time). I thought I was giving one of the recommenders ample time but she threw a fit and complained about how I wasn’t giving her enough time. 😑 You don’t know what people have going on so try to do this months before the deadline. I write out what I wanted them to focus on to make it easier for them.

My other recommender was the senior partner at the firm I worked at. I am very proud that I earned his respect and that he respected me so much as to write a letter of recommendation (he was hoping I would go to Cal over Stanford but still wrote it!) even though it could mean me leaving.

Day of Deadline 11:30 PM

I’m not going to tell you some of the stuff that I left for the last minute bc Don’t Procrastinate! But I was filled with so much self-doubt that I started to convince myself that it was an excellent idea NOT to Apply. It cost $90 and who can toss $90? Wouldn’t it be better NOT to apply and thus not confirm that they didn’t want me?

Straight up, the only reason I hit submit was that I didn’t want to face those who wrote my letters and my fiancee at the time when I had to fess up that I didn’t apply.

So at 11:(too close to midnight I submitted) – seriously don’t do that. 

I found out I got into UC Berkeley the day after I gave birth. I was in the maternity ward hitting refresh while breastfeeding my newborn. You can read about that here. Fast forward to when I had my daughter (she was 2 weeks old) and I found out I fucking got in with an acceptance rate < 2%. You can read about that moment here.

And then she lived happily ever after 😂 🤣 😆 

No girl, with every up there’s a down. And oh have there been so many downs. But this post is long enough and I want to leave you with:

Screen Shot 2020-01-17 at 3.53.04 PM

and …. (I’ve now responded to 100+ messages)

Screen Shot 2020-01-17 at 3.53.45 PM

While I can no longer have detailed 1:1 talks, please read this excellent post with advice on the transfer process. If you have QUESTIONS, please comment on that post and I promise to do my best to answer them.

Follow Me on Twitter @susanabenavidez and subscribe to my blog! I post really long posts but I promise that they are top shelf quality 😉

Moral of the story:

Never Close Your Own Door – Apply!!

One Response to “The Importance of Normalizing “Failure” and Looking Back – The Path to Stanford”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Fireside Chat with WOC Community College Students: Sharing My Nontraditional Path | On the Fast Lane with the Flying Monkeys - September 5, 2020

    […] saw my many attempts and tour of failure in almost every LA community college 😂 The Importance of Normalizing “Failure” and Looking Back – The Path to Stanford and asked if I’d be open to speaking to a small group of WOC community college / transfer […]

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