College Admit Season: What Are You Doing to Create a Space of Belonging?

We’re in the season of college acceptances which can bring a great source of stress, joy, and disbelief. We are captivated by the announcements from family, friends, and complete strangers who leap out of computer chairs wearing hoodies from their top choice school.

But what happens once these students arrive on campuses which are far removed from the places in which they feel a sense of belonging?

When I was 18 I went to Loyola Marymount University. Up until that point I had met maybe a couple of White people my age and only knew home to be Boyle Heights.

So many of us navigate college applications, choice, and college life blindly.

My parents are both immigrants from Mexico. My dad attended elementary school when he wasn’t working as a farm hand. His education stopped at the 3rd grade. My mom attended school sporadically up until the 6th grade. As the eldest, she regularly stayed home to babysit her younger seven siblings. At 14 she was pulled out of school permanently to work double shifts in the garment district. My parents met in LA working at Cliftons Cafeteria, got married at the Guadalupe Wedding Chapel on Broadway, and settled in a studio apartment on Union in Westlake. After one too many close calls with the regular drive-by’s, they decided to head East to Boyle Heights where my older sister and I attended Evergreen elementary. My childhood consisted of a few short blocks from school to Brooklyn (now Cesar Chavez). In the Summer we would get a dosage of alternate reality, of paradise, of two months spent in Villa Coronado, Chihuahua, MX (a small town that you have to really zoom in and know where to look to find it on a map) with my abuelito, tias and tios, and gaggle of primos. These spaces clung to me like a second skin, familiar and glowing.

Students of color will experience a multitude of microaggressions. What is your school doing to counterbalance the harm enacted by the environment you are bringing them into?

So when I walked onto the Marina Del Rey beautiful campus by the beach, I was elated. As I was unloading my things from the car a group of fraternity brothers walked by and stopped to stare and ask, “Hey! What are you?! We have a bet going. My bet is that you are Peruvian, they think you are Colombian.” Confused and feeling the red flame of self-consciousness lick my skin as my mom stood next to me I answered, “I’m Mexican.” They made a face and said, “Really? You’re Mexican? That’s too bad.” And without another word they walked off, their confident strut irking me even more. “Qué dijó?” my mom asked, “No sé.” I played dumb, trying hard to shrug it off.

Later that week I became friends with Kirsten whose name I found it so hard to pronounce that I practiced it over and over again as I showered and got ready for the day’s activities. I was so excited to make a friend and I really didn’t want to mess up her name. As we walked across campus, I noticed her curly-haired, blonde, lightly tanned, blue-eyed, with a slight bounce to her walk and me, canela-colored, dark stick straight hair, dark eyes, and with a determined stride, I thought wow this is really working. As we walked I caught the eye of an older Latina woman who looked lost and she asked me for directions in Spanish. Excited to know where she wanted to go I eagerly gave her directions in Spanish with a big smile. I felt the warmth of her gratitude as she said, “Gracias mijita!” Maybe that’s why it stung even more when Kirsten turned to me with a fuchi face and a hand on her hip to ask with disdain, “You speak Mexican?” “Nooo, I speak Spanish. I’m Mexican.” “Oh. I thought you were just really tanned.” We didn’t hang out after that. I wish I could say that I walked away with my forehead high with pride but that wasn’t the case. I was so hungry for connection that I would have kept hanging out with her if she didn’t start avoiding me.

Your students should not suffer from your failure to plan.

LMU didn’t have enough dorms for all of the freshman so they placed students into creative overflow housing. Some students were staying at a nearby nice hotel. I was placed into a temporary space (a converted study room with bunkbeds pushed in where we were told not to decorate since it was temporary) with a freshman who I was so excited to find out also spoke Spanish. Her Salvadorean parents visited often that week and I longed to be included in their tight knit trio. She was moved out to a permanent freshman housing a few days later so we never got a chance to connect. I felt like they took the two Latinas and shoved them wherever without any consideration. I felt like an estorbo. Because I didn’t have an official dorm room number, I didn’t receive any of the freshman dorm emails. Everyone seemed to be making friends fast and I just felt like an outsider. After a couple of weeks I was moved to a Sophomore dorm where my roommate was a White girl from Arizona, who corrected me and informed me she was Jewish. My suite mates were a bubbly blonde from Brazil and a Latina who didn’t speak Spanish and whose family had lived in the US for generations. They were nice but I didn’t blame them for not wanting a frosh around. I cringe when I remember how awkward I was around them. I would say I owe my former roommate the chocolate I took from her bin during my depression-driven compulsive binging but she was an incredibly unfriendly roommate so I will finally forgive myself and call it square.

I was so painfully lonely. I didn’t know how to just be me. I didn’t feel like I had the chance. Every time I met someone, they asked me, “What are you?” I felt excruciatingly awkward trying to get them to understand that I was Mexican and born in LA. It became easier to just nod when they assumed I was a foreign international student. Sometimes I leaned into whatever they thought I was, I was so damn hungry for friends.

You must provide mental health education and support to all students.

Then a few weeks into school I had issues with my computer and had to call IT. An older Filipino man walked in and asked me if I was Filipina. I said no but that I got asked that a lot, smiling to signal that I took it as a compliment. I had a quick realization that we were alone in my room. It made me uncomfortable but I didn’t know how to handle it. Could I ask him to come back? Don’t be ridiculous I told myself. Then he asked me a series of really personal questions: “Do you have a boyfriend? I bet you don’t, you look like a good girl.” I said no even though I technically did. I felt ashamed for lying to please this older man. Was I being respectful or was I falling into my old patterns of victim and abuser? I waved it off. “Are you a virgin?” He asked as he handed me a disk to clean my computer drive, his finger caressing my hand as I took it. I felt sick in my stomach. “I have to go to class now.” I lied. The room felt hot and I felt like I was falling out of consciousness (I now know that my body was disassociating, a helpful skill I learned when I was being abused as a child). He got up, annoyed, and stated that it was going to take another two hours for the disk to work (a lie). I insisted I couldn’t be late to class, to my theology class, I emphasized. I pandered to his good girl conversation thread hoping he would believe me and leave. He smiled, whispering close to my ear, “Well since you’re such a good girl…” He paused looking down at my chest and scanning my body for several seconds. “…I will leave you the disk. When you’re done with classes you can bring it to me tonight. My office is in the basement. Very quiet. I will wait for you.” I smiled brightly and nodded as I walked him out. As soon as he left I wanted to scratch my eyes out and jump out the window. I felt sick. Ashamed. Dirty.

I was carrying so much pain without the vocabulary to name what happened or the reassurance that it wasn’t my fault.

The exchange triggered all of my past sexual trauma. The IT tech kept calling several times a day using the disk as an excuse. This was not a store-bought software, it was software burned onto a generic CD that I’m sure he had several copies of.

His unwelcome and inappropriate advances (and his access to me) triggered a deep depression that took me from acing my 20 units to failing. I stopped going to class. I was scared to go out. I was ashamed of being scared. Nothing happened I told myself. The calls didn’t stop and I was so scared that he would drop by. I begged my suite mates to return it for me.

The thread between first-gen college and low-income students and their university is incredibly tenuous given all that we have to do to be able to attend.

I was holding four jobs at the time. I sorted books at the library and was a receptionist at an office – both jobs work study, meaning checks that went directly to my tuition. My third job was from sorting shoes at a Mervyn’s 30 miles away, a 2+hr bus ride each way, where I worked from 11 PM – almost 4 AM several days a week. My fourth job was Fri- Sun as a grill cook at the Los Angeles County Hospital, a job I held throughout high school. I worked so that I could meet the roughly $1K/month parent contribution that my parents couldn’t contribute to. They had four other kids and made minimum wage, well under the poverty line in LA. They were used to me helping them financially, there was no way to ask them. Ask them for what? To kill themselves further so that I could go to a private school? I felt so uninformed and stupid. I went to the dean’s office to tell them that I was struggling financially, emotionally, and now academically. I asked if there was any way I could qualify for additional loans. I got an “understanding smile” and apology that more couldn’t be done. I spoke to my professors (who were almost all masters students) for help and they shrugged their shoulders, no special treatment and all that. In their defense I didn’t say why I was struggling. I was too damn ashamed. In my defense, I didn’t feel seen, heard, and nowhere near safe in order to open up.

College Dropout.

Shortly after my mother was getting surgery and would be unable to work for months. She was struggling financially and while she didn’t ask, she didn’t say no when I said I’d take a leave of absence to come home and work and help. The decision was easy to make because I had no roots at LMU. I lacked a support system. I lacked a guide. I lacked a sense of belonging.

I never went back and no one at LMU ever reached out.

I never went back to LMU and it took me 14 years to get back to school full time. I’m lucky. The overwhelming majority of college students who dropout, including prospective students who accept but don’t end up attending any school largely due to financial constraints (Summer melt) and those who dropout after starting school, never return to school. As a first-gen college, low-income, daughter of Mexican immigrants who lived below the poverty line, I had a lot of cards stacked against me. These are data points that can easily be tracked. This data should be used to plan for and accommodate students.

I understand that it is hard for large universities to provide personalized services but it is unethical to accept students who meet your quotas, who you charge the same tuition, and whose personal statements clearly state their mental health crises – and not do a damn thing for them once they are on campus.

I was saddled with a lot of debt from just one semester. I was also saddled with a heavy feeling of failure. Of letting my parents down. Of disappointing my high school teachers. Of loss.

There were many little and easy things that could have been done to prevent me from leaving. Instead, many things and non-actions on LMU’s part prevented me from feeling welcome, from feeling like I belonged.

So I ask again, what are you doing to ensure that your prospective students can come to see your school as home? What are you doing to ensure that they can feel like they belong?

I’m a Ferocious Warrior

I’m a ferocious warrior

Don’t ask me what I’ve seen

I’m a ferocious warrior

don’t ask me to explain

I’ve learned so long to survive

I don’t know that I’ve seen

what could have been

I’ve walked and walked

and leaned In

I’ve read and read and thought I’d finally been

only to find that I was nowhere near

nowhere at all

You see

When you have been programmed to live

step by step

un dia a la vez

you forget

you don’t see

the life outside that cage

You don’t think what could have been

If I didn’t have to decide based on the need to


And yet one day

You realize

You are no longer working to feed

no longer walking to heed

the advice of ensuring

your children simply eat

One day you see

You have never broken through the feverish mucous

Shutting your eyes shut

to possibility

Until you feel the weight of the future

of possibility

Of Choice

you never had

you never knew

and now beckons

What Will You Do Now that You Taste

the Weight of Freedom

to ponder

the weight of Choice?

You’ve outrun paycheck to paycheck

You’ve outlived the warfare of your youth

You’ve outgrown the stories of

Making It

You’ve Made It

You’ve Made it to


You stand at cliff’s edge

and you realize as you are fallling



You realize you’ve only made it to


What will your choice be?

COVID Grief: Grieving Sudden Death

On Wednesday night I got news over text. The paternal grandmother of my oldest girls (my ex-MIL) passed away from COVID.

The group text sent me on a tailspin. At first I was confused reading her name, no reference to her relationship to me. I first thought it was someone else and then realized, no, no, it’s her.

Reading those words in a group text made me feel naked, blindsided. It felt callous. Cold. Cruel. Sad.

I couldn’t process her death. I barely got it out when I told my daughters that this woman who was their grandmother, but with whom they had not had a relationship with in 13 years, since they were 2 years old, had died suddenly. They looked at me in a mix of blankness and confusion. I understood and yet I felt even more at a loss for what I should be feeling.

I tried to talk about it with my partner but couldn’t get more than a few words out before wanting to shut down again and not think. I avoided thinking about it by working as soon as I woke and cooking and cleaning when done with work.

Then not until four days later in the privacy of a Saturday was I no longer able to hide from her. Every time I closed my eyes I saw her face. Looking grim, her image floating right above me.

I allowed myself to think of her and slowly was able to separate thoughts of her from the trauma her son caused me.

I thought about how she’d welcomed me into her home when I married her son. Her willingness to embrace me, to make me feel like a daughter. To make me feel what no one else had, like I belonged. Thinking of her brought back aromas of Baja style fish tacos, crema, salsa, and homemade tortillas. Everything lovingly made from scratch over chisme in the kitchen. The grim face was replaced by an open mouth, head tilted back, deep throated and free laugh as I joked with her in the kitchen cooking side by side. Her face was plaintive as she spoke to me about how she was doing and managing her pain. Her face smiling lightly as I told her how about my all day sickness during pregnancy. Her face alight holding her grand daughters, showing me the dresses she made for them. The beautiful rag dolls she made and I helped her sell at work. Her face angry when I left her son. Her face in hard judgement asking why I couldn’t make it work? Her face embarrassed and apologetic when she realized all he’d done.

I started walking into the memories and with each face, a cry would come. A shy cry at first, afraid to release the emotion. Then tumbling over each other, grasping for space and breath. And then full force sobbing for what felt like hours. I cried until my face felt sore from throbbing and shaking. I cried until I couldn’t see through my swollen eyes. I cried until I could see her face and feel peace.

Yesterday, I woke up still puffy but also full of purpose and hope. She was at peace. Her voice that had been with me, imploring, judgmental, and kind – was released. I opened all the windows and door and lit Palo Santo – breathing in the sweet aroma and exhaling the fumes of a strong llanto. I gave the house a deep clean, buffing out my remaining tears, sweeping out all dust and remnants of fear.

I won’t be able to go to her funeral. She died in Tijuana, MX where she lived. It’s not safe to travel and it’s not safe for me to see her son. This is the grieving I am able to do.

This is the grieving that I can allow myself to do for now.

Pain Tolerance

When I was a little kid I took great pride in having a ‘high pain tolerance’. If I fell (which happened a lot in my slippery high-heeled cowboy boots), got into a fist fight with my male cousins (never one to back down), or burned myself in our outdoor disqueras – I would grit my jaw and swallow the searing pain and let it pool in my stomach. Let it sit there like a dare to see how long I could hold it without getting light-headed. I dug my nails into my palm or pinched the inside of my upper arm to transfer the pain and feel present in what I was actively doing to myself, for myself.

When I brought up stress at work, severe PMS depression, or struggling in general, my doctors waved it off. Not one heard me. When my ex-husband threw a heavy sound system and broke my toe, the ER doctor removed my nail and started giving me stitches as I flinched and sweated until they asked if it hurt. They didn’t even think to check if I had been administered pain numbing medication and I didn’t know that asking was an option. The same happened after a vaginal birth that required stitches. I didn’t want to be a bother. I thought it was a test to my abilities. As a mother of three children, thrice I said, “No drugs. I want to experience everything.” But really I was afraid of seeking comfort.

As I grew older, this “high pain tolerance” was nothing more than an old belief and voices that said, “Don’t cry! Why are you crying?! I should be crying!”, “Crying is for funerals”, “Callate llá!”, “Don’t tell anyone.” I internalized these voices and messages. I believed that I didn’t have the right to show emotion nor the “luxury” of expressing my pain.

For a long time I believed I didn’t feel physical pain like others. I had a shield, a super power that would make me an impenetrable spy (hey, I dream a lot!).

I didn’t know it was okay to admit to feeling pain.

Then with each birth came a storm of postpartum depression that engulfed me, leaving me unmoored in a treacherous sea of feeling nothing, unprompted tears, feeling like a live wire, raw emotions, unsolicited trauma memories, and a pain so excruciating it hurt to breathe. I finally went to therapy.

The only difference between me saying my pain is a 5 in the pain scale compared to your 10 is that I have been trained by harmful behaviors and neglect to eat and hide my pain. You have been cared for when you fall, when you get burnt, when you are emotionally devastated. You know it is natural to feel pain and you expect to be comforted.

I didn’t know that it was okay – as a human being – to express how much I was hurting.

I didn’t know that seeking comfort is not selfish, not a weakness.

After four years of therapy I learned to ask myself, “What would you do if this was happening to [insert my child’s name]?” Only in this manner could I allow myself to empathize with myself. Only in this manner could I understand how much pain I was in.

On Wednesday morning I was out for my daily walk waiting on an iced latte and croissant, feeling giddy and abuzz with the impending inauguration, and feeling in control and in awe of my life.

I was notified of my younger brother’s arrest for one count of murder and two counts of attempted murder.

I started choking on spontaneous sobs swallowed by old pain denial mechanisms and trying not to pass out. I didn’t want my partner to see me, much less the strangers walking right by me to get coffee. I felt rage at their rudeness. Didn’t they see that I was hiding – away from the coffee kiosk? Couldn’t they go around?! Couldn’t they see I was failing and trying hard to hide this – to close this ocean of pain threatening to undo me?

I am in pain.

For most of the last week I have teetered between sobbing, feeling empty and impotent, and white hot rage.

I’ve leveraged all of my tools from therapy to remain present. To keep being a mother. To keep being an employee, a wife, a friend, a person. What has been constant is this heavy weight of deep pain that makes me want to do anything to stop it.

On the outside I look the same.

I look ‘fine’.

But I am not fine.

I do not have a “high pain tolerance.” Brown and Black people do not have a different way of feeling pain. We feel the same pain. We have just had to hide it to survive.

But surviving is not enough. I need to deal with this pain so I can focus on helping my brother. I need to release some of this pain so I can breathe.

I need to stop hiding. See my pain. Respect my pain please. Respect that I am struggling and trying my very best.

Survivor’s Guilt It Is Not

I have survivor’s guilt. It’s survivor’s guilt. You are experiencing survivor’s guilt.

No, it is not.

It’s not survivor’s guilt when you feel off about you ‘making it’ and your family not.

It is not survivor’s guilt when you feel sick in your stomach that you have one foot in success and one foot in trying to figure out your family’s mess.

Why can’t you lift them out of this?

Why can’t they just…


Being so messy.

So wrong.

So guilty.

So easily captured by the rules and laws written surreptitiously to capture your own.

Survivor’s Guilt Is is Not

When the system was meant to oppress you and everyone like you

When you and those like you were thrown away as soon as you could suck

on Your mother’s tit

Full of nourishment

and bitterness

Survivor’s Guilt It Is Not

When the system is designed to embitter your mother

with back breaking work

with the stress of finances

with the stress of feeding you

with the stress of being carried away each time a siren is sung

A siren sings

Migra! Migra!

Weeeeooooo Weeeeeeoooooo!

Red lights

Blue Lights

Still make your insides cold

Arrest your body

As you realize

You have not survived

One foot in “success”

One foot in the mess

created by the system to pull you and those like you down



Until you drown


Yet bob up and find a way to peek



then break into a thundering run


From survivors

A burden

by a system’s maker

to feel guilty

for living



is not yours

It’s not you that

Keeps you

in Guilt and Wonder

Why me?

When you could ask, instead

why this?

Change this


I wonder how you are doing.

That part is easy, it could be a feeling of self satisfaction, wondering how you are. Where you are. If you are in the streets again or have a roof over your head.

But it doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt just the same. The wondering, the not knowing, The wondering if you know that I care and that I want to help. Truly help. Not like yesterday.

Because I still swallow the bile in my throat every time I remember coming to see you after you asked for twenty bucks. Groceries in tow, things I knew would not go bad. Because I’ve been there. Without refrigeration, squatting under a roof and four walls but no assurance for tomorrow. Gathering the bread, staples, things I hoped would last. Things I hoped would keep you alive, all the time wishing you’d come with me. Sweet brother of mine.

I love you.

And yet I’m too much of a coward to really wonder where you are. Because every time I see a statistic on the LA Times I wonder.

Is it you?

I devour the description, the tattoos, looking to see if they cover the beautiful surface of your face.

Your eyes, so kind. Those gorgeous almond-shaped eyes that haunt me every day. Those eyes that haven’t changed since you were two years old. I have loved you. Always, and yet, I know nothing of where you are and how you are.

And none of it should be your fault hermanito, and yet it seems only you pay for it all but we all pay. Over and over again I would pay, to have you safe. And those you love.

What is Abuse?

It was dark, in the middle of the night, and cold. I stood shivering in my thin polyester Scooby PJs peeking at the swollen, disfigured face of my aunt. Flashes of red, blue, and very bright lights pulled up into our driveway.

My aunt crying again with a new bruise blooming in her cheek and eye, swollen belly before her, carrying my cousin who at nine months in the womb was ready to burst into this world.

A beautiful dinner of carne asada, salad with generous slices of aguacate and tomate on top, and beans – always freshly made – on the side. As I inhaled the plate before me I heard the crack, centimeters from my ear. I coughed on flecks of porcelain dish that sprayed throughout the table once it ricocheted off the wall. The wall where my dad did not aim, my mom beside me. Was she beside me? Or standing by the comal warming tortillas as she always stood, her face hidden in the walls away from everything and everyone, away from him, from us.

The red eyes. The staggering walk and angry whispers to himself. To themselves.

All of these memories are jumbled and sometimes, hard as a I try – I can’t ensure I know whom was who and what I saw or what I was told – over and over again by my mother. Her stories. her account. Of me, my dad, my life – it’s hard to disentangle what I know to be true to what I hope I can convince myself happened, the happen she wants, her truth I hope for.

Velour pants, copper-colored, matching velour jacket hugging my body. Curled hair after hours with a curling iron, glossy lips and my eyelashes curled. I pulled the jacket down to cover the thin strip of skin exposed every time I stood up straight. I’m ironing his shirt and as I turn it over to him, I’m not sure what happens. I go back to the bed curling the last strands of hair and he makes a comment about Who Am I Dressing For? And then there’s the smell of burning flesh, the iron stuck against my hip, an angry red strip. He’s crying and I’m trying not to implode from wanting to run away but having nowhere to go. DJ is loud and everyone is drinking and dancing at my mom’s house. Oh You Know How Clumsy I am! I wave off the burn that is beginning to blister but I don’t cover it.

I can’t bring myself to share more than that.

The shame, the shame, the shame.

Shame of having failed at marriage. Of not putting up with it, of not being better, or good enough to deserve better. The oily feeling of failure sticking to your skin, the fear that your pores are emanating a stale smell of desperation. The feeling of having to depend on only yourself when you feel so broken and bone tired. The angry words of disappointment and disgust of others for not staying. Prostituta. Cualquiera. Mujer de la Calle. Desgracia.

And those two little faces looking up at me wondering, What Next? In our car in the cold nights, bundled in their car seats. The constant prickling of tears that refuse to spill because that’s not a luxury you can afford.

It’s taken me years to forgive myself for leaving, for failing. Even now, against all logic, I feel guilty, guilt intertwined with incredulity at How Did I Get There in the First Place? I left that abusive relationship only to fall into another that would take more a few more years to get out. To finally get out of the reach of the same cycle that preyed on my insecurities, my precarious financial situation, my housing instability, and low self-esteem. I grew up in an abusive home and walked on a path that naturally led me to another abusive home, this time as an adult. I was fortunate enough to have had the strength, the looks, the luck of getting out without the help of my family. The family that normalized that abuse and would gaslight me each time I had tried to leave. I’m out and have been out of abusive situations for years and all I can think of is how I would mourn that younger me if she were still in that basement being hurt in silence or in that loft in a luxury building being hurt in different ways. I mourn those still in those situations.

My aunt came to our house time and time again until she stopped. My aunt was a beautiful woman, deep caramel brown skin that shone whether day or night, and she loved me. How she married my uncle remains unclear except for the fact that she was the darkest of her family and was simply ignored and sidelined. She may have wanted what so many of us wanted, what I wanted, what my mother wanted and didn’t know how to give – she may have wanted to feel wanted. She stayed with this man her whole life, no matter how many times he beat her. No matter his illogical jealousy that resulted in a swollen lip, no matter how pregnant she was he still unleashed the same anger against her jaw and stomach driven by some slight he imagined she had committed by having another man open the door for her.

She tried to leave, she moved so many times. No one ever offered her safety and I don’t know that she even thought to ask. Each time, he seemed to find her. And each time a new child would fill her swollen belly which would make him kinder for a time.

I didn’t understand how lonely, how painful it was for her until I stood in her shoes. If you can, check in and be there for your friends and family who may in similar situations. And no matter how many times it takes them to leave, be there every single time.

Normalizing Failure with Scott Hanselman

I think you sense a theme here 🙂 My partner once told me that he filters the associates he wants to work with by seeing if they’re the type to run towards a fire or run away from it. Well I know that I’m the kind to run full speed towards the fire, take my sweater and beat the shit out of the fire in order to put it out. Call that what you will, but what you can’t call me is someone who would run away from a challenge. Or the possibility of failure.

I had the joy of being a guest speaker on Scott Hanselman’s podcast where we chatted for <1/2 an hour on Normalizing Failure. I humbly believe that you will relate and find it refreshing.

Con mucho amor, much love, all the time:

– Susana AKA Miss Chingona, La Mera Mera, La Coder, La Honey, La que / the one that will always keep it real with you. I hope you enjoy!

10 Things to Manage Stress

How to manage your workload and goals amidst a pandemic

The pandemic and shelter in place orders have been a massive stressor on all of us. Personally, this Spring I was carrying 20 engineering units at Stanford while caring for my 4yo and helping my two teenage kids with their sudden online learning. This Summer I started a new job, moved back to LA from the Bay Area, had to find schools and register my kids, and experienced remote work for the first time. These stressors have a compounding effect as it adds to stress you already had.

Needless to say I was stressed. Stressed to excel at work while managing all of my parenting responsibilities. Stressed by the move (we did it all ourselves to minimize contact). Stressed to find a new doctor and therapists. Stressed about dental work I had to get done.

Stressed, stressed, stressed!

gif of SpongeBob SquarePants stressed out

Stress caused weight gain, troubled sleep, difficulty unplugging from work, and it made my memory and recall slower, short temper, and a constant feeling of no matter what I do, I feel like it’s not enough.

Stepping Back and Assessing Your Situation

My brain felt cluttered, unorganized, and slow. I felt like I was at risk of burnout. I finally asked myself, what do you feel? I made space for those feelings which allowed me to approach the issue with some distance and curiosity. I then wondered, why was I living like this?

I realized that I have lived under extreme stress my entire life. Since my childhood, to being a single mom of two, to working at high pressure companies, to studying CS at Stanford – it has been nonstop go go go. This made me realize that some of my stress was self-induced. I was working at capacity needlessly. I had to adapt to my new situation and find my sense of agency. I pushed back on meetings, delegated work, reassessed timelines, and most importantly I was kind to myself. At night I tell myself, “Yes you’re right, you have a lot do do. You also accomplished a lot, just look at your checklist!” This allows me to reframe the panic in my brain to a gentle self-assurance that I will get to it tomorrow.

Structure & Routine For Ambiguity

Reflecting on what was on my plate made me realize that I had to think big picture and invest in myself. I thrive under structure and routine – probably because I didn’t have any as a kid. I’m also really good at dealing with emergencies, projects with ambiguity, and am a great strategist.

By planning ahead and setting up my framework and processes, I created structure that maximizes my capacity, allows me to remain creative, and gives me the intellectual and emotional capacity to deal with issues that come up unexpectedly.

Creating Structure At Work

I love my work. It’s my first job where I feel valued, mentored, and like I belong. It’s also comes with the high investment of self and juggling of responsibilities that startups are associated with. To manage my long term and short term goals I did and led with the following:

  1. Create a work plan. Excel template here. The goal at the top of the sheet is to find out what you want, what you need, your goals, and generally come up with your North Star and Mission. I go over this with my boss during our daily check-in and update the goals I have at the top, as well as changing priorities and progress. It makes it easy for them to see that I am handling things and what my capacity is. It also makes it easy for me to remember any questions I need answered.
  2. Daily Checklist. I use my notes app as a daily checklist and include everything I hope to achieve that day. I copy over items I didn’t get to the next day. I love checking off things I get done. I also include a short blurb on what I did for exercise, what I did to prep my daughter for school, etc. This allows me to remind Myself What My Capacity Is. It’s helpful to see everything you do and reminds you that you are managing a lot and doing so amidst a pandemic.
  3. Gauge Priority Level and What is In Your Control
    • Ask Is this a Priority Today?
    • Ask Is it in My Control to Push Back the Deadline?
    • Communicate your priorities and updates to those involved.
    • Use your work plan to show everything on your plate.
  4. Tracking Your Growth, Communication, and Transparency: I use a google doc for my Update and Insights Report. This includes the milestones, wins, and learnings (e.g. what went well, pain points, and ideas) from the past week and the Next Steps for the week ahead. I keep a Susana Notes doc for daily notes on meetings and projects, my daily priorities, and brainstorming sessions. Everyone in the company has access to both docs. Both of these documents, along with my work plan, help me track my progress and my professional growth. It communicates what I am up to and provides full transparency into my output – This is especially important for companies (and startups in general) new to remote work.
  5. Calendly. This is critical for me since I average 20 client-related meetings a week.
  6. Add 10 Minute Buffers to my calendar so I can take a bio break, stretch, get a snack or coffee. Before I did this, I was regularly ending up with solid back to back meetings from 9AM – 5PM with no opportunity to do any of the above.
  7. Block Off Time for Lunch. I’m going to admit I am not good at taking breaks but it, at minimum, allows me a break from meetings and calls.
  8. Respect your Needs. I have therapy once a week. I have a Hard Block for this time with a buffer on each end so I am not late and to provide a break for me to process. I have to pick up my 4yo from preschool by 5PM so I schedule 30 minutes so I can walk over and get her. I avoid early morning meetings because I exercise, work from bed with my daughter cuddling next to me, and get breakfast and my daughter ready. I like to shower and get ready unrushed as well as have everything on my desk that I need (coffee and a lot of water). I burn my palo santo, meditate, and do my affirmations. It’s important to know what works for you.
  9. What Activates You. I have a heavy workload and take a lot of video calls. To stay energized and reset I:
    • Brush my teeth (The minty flavor is revitalizing)
    • Satisfy any bio, food, or water need: when you meet your body’s needs, your mind has a lot less to worry about.
    • Run cold water on my wrists: shake off sleepiness
    • Play 90s Hip Hop: I mean do I need to explain? 😀
  10. What Calms You. When I find myself starting to get overwhelmed and anxious I:
    1. Walk out to my balcony and people watch
    2. Think of a specific memory with someone I love and loves me back
    3. Hug someone or something you love
    4. Call my sister or husband, talking it out or just hearing their voice is soothing.

If you’ve read this far, you’re a go-getter, a hustler, a chingona, a manifestation of everything Little You could never dream you would be. You may be mining for ways to do even more. But I hope the above serves you and everything you want to accomplish while not losing your sense of self, your boundaries, and your health.

A Perspective: What a Canceled Commencement Ceremony means to a First Gen College Student

I knew that life was going to fundamentally change when reports of COVID-19 projected a global pandemic but like many Americans, I tried to shut my eyes to it as I continued with life. In the eve of Winter quarter finals, my life was consumed by long hours of work at Huang basement, raw emotions, and constant sleep deprivation. I was carrying 19 units with four computer science classes and to keep from breaking down I willed myself to take it one day at a time whispering to myself that I was almost there.

What kept me going was knowing that Spring quarter was almost here. Spring quarter embodies hope, a calm over the campus, photoshoots of senior fountain hopping, and bodies browning under the gorgeous California sun as they study in the lawn in front of Green library. And this Spring quarter would also mean accomplishing a goal long deferred.

My life has taken many turns; three and a half years ago it took a turn up as 14 years after graduating from high school I had the privilege of going back to school full time as an undergrad studying CS at Stanford University. With thick skin and mental strength acquired by experience I was better equipped than my Latinx / First gen peers but in many ways, being a non-traditional transfer student (and a mom to three girls), I was even more of an outsider, even more of a square peg trying to fit into a round hole.

Walking across that stage and getting that degree would mean it was all worth it. So when Stanford confirmed all of our fears and officially canceled our commencement ceremony, it didn’t just hurt us, it didn’t just dash our dream –  it dashed the dreams of our parents, our siblings, and for some of us that of our children.

I know that I will still get my diploma and that I will be okay. But it still feels like we have been robbed of a moment – our moment, to give our parents the greatest source of pride seeing their first generation American, brown, children thriving in a four year institution and being celebrated along with white American children as equals.

Because just as this was all worth it to us in order to get that degree, for our parents: the sacrifice of immigrating to this country with nothing but the sweat and labor of their hands; the fear of living in this country and contributing to its economy while undocumented; the desaprecios from their employers; the humiliation of having to continually rely on their children to explain it in Spanish; the unceasing ache in their bent necks as they walked through life with eyes downcast – it was all going to be worth it the moment they heard their child’s name called out and saw them walk across that stage, diploma in hand. Heads held high, broad smiles with aching cheeks, tears brimming, and dressed in their Sunday best – our parents would feel the pulse of their rich cultural history and ancestry emerge. They would sheath their too-long practiced peasant shyness and would look up and exclaim to all that could hear, “That is my Susy! That is my daughter.”

And when with heavy hearts we called our parents to tell them the news, they quickly without missing a beat, responded, “Mija, we are so proud of you. The graduation doesn’t matter. What matters is, que tú luchaste mija, tú lo hiciste!” And we smiled through the phone swallowing the lump in our throat knowing how much it very much did matter.

So when we say that missing out on a graduation ceremony is bigger than us, this is what we mean: We lost the opportunity to elevate our parents the way they have carried us on their shoulders our whole lives.

And while in the big picture this remains just another consequence of a terrifying global pandemic, to those of us who grew up in a small, restricted, and confined existence, this was our biggest picture.