I grew up in Lima, OH, the oldest of five siblings with immigrant parents who juggled two and three jobs each. I lived most of my adolescent life in the shadows, as an undocumented immigrant. I was constantly in fight or flight mode. And yet, my fear of deportation didn’t stop me from pursuing my ambitions. If anything it made me work harder.
I was 17 when I realized I wouldn’t be able to apply for students loans because of my undocumented status. Affording to pay for college was going to be an uphill battle, but I learned something important about creating your own luck and being empowered to define your own narrative. I began to see “No” as an opportunity to find creative solutions around challenges. I refused to believe I couldn’t afford college, so I enrolled at Miami University of Ohio anyway and took each semester one payment at a time; applying for private scholarships, entering creative writing contests, working short-term cash-paying jobs, and finding ways to minimize the costs of room and board. There were semesters I had to take off altogether when I didn’t have enough money to pay tuition. But instead of completely giving up, I forced myself to think of those obstacles that left me feeling defeated as bumps in the road, rather than an end-all. I taught myself that Yes was only a few No’s away. The was key to moving forward.
I forced myself to think of those obstacles that left me feeling defeated as bumps in the road, rather than an end-all.
The summer before I graduated from college, I was desperate to get my foot in the door at a media company in New York City. I sent my résumé to dozens of companies for unpaid internships. On my résumé, instead of saying I lived in Ohio, I wrote an NYC address — a place I dreamed of living but had never visited. I heard back from Sean “Diddy” Combs’ Bad Boy Entertainment company; his marketing agency was looking for a summer intern, and following a phone interview, I was invited to come in person for the second round.
Heart pounding, I accepted.
Not being able to afford a plane ticket, I hastily looked for the next bus out. Eighteen hours later, and nine stops through the night, I arrived at Port Authority in Times Square. I cleaned up and changed in the bathroom and booked it to the interview on Broadway. I couldn’t afford a hotel room to stay the night — and I didn’t know anyone in the city — so after meeting with the hiring manager, I immediately made the return trip home.
A few weeks later, I was back on a bus to New York City. I had secured the internship at Bad Boy Media, a second internship in the ad sales department at MTV, and found housing at Columbia University. Affording those unpaid internships in one of the most expensive cities in the world, while also struggling to finish paying for college, called for creative thinking. When I found no luck walking up and down restaurant row with my résumé in hand, I resorted to Google. I funded that summer with short stints as a babysitter, dog walker, pet sitter, a club promoter, and working at a bar. I regularly worked more than 80 hours a week between the internships and side gigs.
That summer, the Obama administration rolled out Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), and I was able to apply for a work permit. All my sacrifices were paying off. Here was the Yes I was looking for. High on confidence, I applied to the prestigious NBC Page Program. I started the program in 2013, and it gave me the incredible chance to work in and around NBCUniversal. I found myself working on shows like Saturday Night Live, and eventually landed a full-time staff role at Morning Joe.
Ironically, the success of my work today is predicated on my network. As a booking producer for Morning Joe, I’m responsible for four hours of live programming a day; booking newsmakers, elected officials, Washington insiders, cultural influencers, and some of the world’s best journalists. But it was a tough slog to get valuable work experience starting out.
For young women in marginalized communities or with underprivileged backgrounds, working hard is only half the battle. Confidence and ambition are crucial. Sometimes you have to be your own best supporter and harness your strength from your core.
In my new book, Earn It!, that I co-authored with Mika Brzezinski, the research we conducted with Harvard University shows that although white women are becoming more comfortable with being described as ambitious, Hispanic women and other minorities still have trouble seeing it as a positive attribute.
As a Latina, who was conditioned to value traits like patience and embrace notions such as, “If you wait for your turn, good things will come,” ambition was made to seem like it’s a self-serving vehicle to bypass qualities like humility, and dare I say, teetering into arrogance. I felt the uneasiness of saying that word out loud, “Ambisiosa.”
But what I’ve learned about overcoming my own challenges and getting to where I am, is that you shouldn’t ask for permission to move forward. Don’t wait for your turn. To not only embrace ambition – by getting over the fact it’s a dirty word – but to be and act ambitious.
And even though it’s tough to become the things you don’t see around you, we all have a chance to own our narratives. When I was 20, I didn’t have professional mentors, but I decided it was up to me to change my course.
If that path isn’t paved for you, find tools where you can and carve that road for yourself.