As told to Melissa Kravitz.
At 23 years old, most people are finishing their educational journeys — mine was just beginning.
My plan was always to attend college right away after I graduated. But my grandparents, who had raised me since I was three weeks old, passed away while I was still in high school. I was living on my own in Zachary, Louisiana as a 17-year-old and decided to move to Baton Rouge to look for work. I couldn’t afford to attend college and didn't have the guidance of my grandparents, who had always encouraged me to continue my education.
My only work experience at that point was as a cashier at a local supermarket in the small town I grew up in, and, because this was the late '90s, the only place to search for jobs was in the newspaper. A job description requiring someone with good people skills caught my eye, and I became a telemarketer, convincing strangers to set up demonstrations of a $2,000 vacuum cleaner (they didn’t know how expensive it was!) in their homes. I soon got married to someone I had been dating, and we had a son, but the marriage was short — after a year and a half we got divorced.
So there I was, 23 years old, the single mother of an infant; despite having worked my way up to a management position at the telemarketing company, I had no real job skills and substantial financial problems. I thought about how I wanted my life to look going forward, how it would match up with my childhood dream of becoming a business person. Years prior, I’d fantasized about running a business and being a model, and at 23, I was no closer to being a CEO or a model than at any other age. I had aspirations, and something needed to change. I knew then that it was time to go back to school.
Raising an 18-month-old without a full-time job was not an option, so I needed to find a way to attend classes at night. In order for me to go to school, I had to find an institution to align with my life. A coworker told me about the flexibility at the University of Phoenix, which would work with my lifestyle at the time. Enrolling was the best decision I could ever make, but starting college as a nontraditional student was scary. It was emotional and difficult — there was so much planning and uncertainty — but if I wanted things to change, I knew I had to do it. So, I worked out a financial plan and began my educational journey, in which I earned a bachelor’s and a master’s as well as several professional credentials and became a CPA.
Time management was essential to my plan. I continued working from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., having an hour break for my son before going to class from 6 to 10 p.m. I also had to find time to study, write papers, and complete assignments. I knew instructors didn’t want to hear excuses. Because there’s more to life than just working and going to school, I made sure to outline my weeks on Sundays so that I could stay on task but also set aside time for my personal life. Each day was a plan; I’d have short-term goals to check off and eventually get to my long-term goal. I knew I couldn’t be one of those people who goes to school and doesn’t finish.
When I look back and think about how I pulled it all off, I remember that my journey wasn’t only for me. I worried about missing my son growing up, wondering if I should postpone my education until he was older, but I needed to make these sacrifices, and they paid off. My son is now a sophomore in college, and my story is a family legacy; college is a standard for us. He grew up seeing me doing all this work, studying at night, on the baseball field with a book in my hand. This is what our family does: We go to college.
Now, two decades into my career as an entrepreneur and CPA, I look back and realize the odds were against me in so many ways. I was a woman of color not raised by her parents, divorced young, and a single parent. But regardless of my background, there was room for me to be a college student. And that made me see that there was space in the corporate world, too. What I learned is this: Over everything else, you have to set priorities. You have to set boundaries. You have to be a self-starter.