The only college I ever knew I wanted to go to was the University of Washington. From the beginning of time and without real reason it was on my list; the list of one. The idea of university made no sense to me, for whatever reason, except for UW. I made posters and cheered for them at the Rose Bowl growing up. I wore t-shirts and recited to everyone how I wanted to go there.
Adults would pat my head, in a belittling manner but without that intention. “Yes, dear,” as if to pacify a bratty child. I knew what I wanted and they didn’t care either way. My parents opened their Mexican restaurant when I was almost six years old. I grew up in it and with their regular patrons. The thing is, unexpectedly, you become the child of the town. Those who dine with you take an interest in your goals and your life. They tell you their thoughts and expect you to heed their advice because they’ve earned it. They’ve had dinner with you for the last ten years, for gawd’s sake.
For one important reason that I don’t have to share, I decided I wanted to be a neonatologist. A smaller part of this decision was that I loved helping people, including bandaging their wounds and holding their hands as they were brave. Medicine came to mind. Somewhere along the way a friend shared her college story about sociology and what that means. Okay, I thought. I’ll major in pre-med and minor in sociology. That made sense to me. Easy peasy.
I was an avid student but I didn’t force myself. In AP history in high school, I was excited to hear I had passed it and would have college credit. My teacher announced his astonishment, “You passed!” he exclaimed incredulously. I don’t think he could believe it but I could. I wasn’t surprised. I had worked for it. Kind of.
I remember the time coming to apply for colleges. I already knew my plan. I was only going to apply for the University of Washington, even though a certain classmate told me that if I got accepted, it was due to affirmative action. With a lot of hope and a little hard work, I applied. I didn’t care why, if they did say yes. I just wanted a yes.
And I was accepted. I’ve skipped over a lot of ups and downs in life because that isn’t what this is about, but don’t mistake that this was a feat. I didn’t come from privilege. This was exceptionally wonderful and I knew it. My father didn’t want me to go so far away; a spectacular scholarship from Western was part of the reason. If I stayed and attended WWU, I would have essentially zero debt at graduation. That was not the case for UW.
So, in true Vee fashion, I left. The day after graduation (my mom still reminds me of this) I packed up and moved south. I began classes in September and was ready to thrive.
Except, that was not the case. UW was hard. There were more students in some of my classes than my entire town growing up. UW slapped me back to reality fast and I was not prepared. It grabbed my confidence out of my hand and hurled it to the floor like a glass snow globe. It shattered when it hit the tile.
Fast forward to my last semester. I had moved out of my dorm to rent an apartment with a friend who then bailed because she lost a job, I had met a guy, and I was struggling to make it through my first year. Every decision I could wrongly make, I did. It was defeating me. I had practically zero visits from family, almost no friends in Seattle, my first failed class under my belt, and a full-time job. I was overwhelmed.
This isn’t a hate message to my loved ones. I made my decisions and I fostered or didn’t relationships then. I love my family, and it’s complicated. Relationships aren’t always pretty and I love my mother and father. Our relationship isn’t perfect. We managed how we could or how we knew when we needed to and so no judgement or finger-pointing. Life is what it is. I was alone. What I’m saying is I’ve consistently disappointed myself. Them, too. I learned not to expect for them to be there.
In my last class of the day, the teacher had a lackadaisical approach to school. He gave us three assignments on the first day and told us we could attend or not attend, but before a certain day the three assignments must be turned in. I thought it was wonderful. I had so much I was juggling that the idea of being in charge of my workload was exhilarating. Except, I knew shit about managing my workload. What my ears heard was that I could work an additional hour at my bank job and I could glean by imaginary osmosis whatever information I needed to complete my three assignments.
Days and then weeks went by. Little by little I chipped away at the first two assignments. Maybe that actually took months because before I knew it, two weeks were left before the end of the term and one assignment was outstanding. And I hadn’t attended class so I had absolutely zero idea on what my approach to the assignment would be. I frustratingly shared my concerns with my boyfriend at the time, who was a hop, skip, and a jump from becoming my husband.
He was living with me at this point. I had been drowning trying to pay this Seattle apartment on my own and he arrived, like a knight in shining rent assistance. I was terrified of bad credit, which is pretty fucking ironic since he singlehandedly ruined mine shortly after. I digress. I had been offered extra hours at work because I was excelling there unlike at school and he saw an opportunity. He offered to write my paper, stated he had taken a similar class and would be well equipped to get me a decent grade.
Not once had I cheated in school or in college. I argued with him for a long while, convinced I could do this paper and work the extra hours and give him the attention he demanded. He wasn’t so sure and he let me know it. Through gaslighting and manipulation, he convinced me. With pure words because he had never hit me up to now. He would write this paper and I would go to work and all would be well.
I came home and he had it. Beaming with pride he held it up, excited to show me his masterpiece. I read it in awe and with disdain. It didn’t sound like me at all, was an opinion I never would have taken. I was one day away from the due date so he proposed driving it over in that instant. I was hesitant. It didn’t feel right; it had never felt right. I knew this was wrong and yet I didn’t know what to say. I rode in silence to the university with him, walked begrudgingly to the required building. He accompanied me most of the way. I was alone in front of the mailbox and I really thought for a moment about what kind of person I wanted to be; what kind of person I already was. Somehow, cheater won and I slipped it into the professor’s mailbox.
It should come as no surprise that I was called in for an investigation into plagiarism. Absolutely the most embarrassing moment of my life, up until then. I entered the room downtrodden and listened as the student investigator told me that the paper had been copied, word by word, off the internet. I never fought or lied. I confessed right away. Other classes I had worked so hard to pass were brought into question. I was humiliated sitting in that room, trying to advocate that this had been the first time, as ridiculous as it might sound. I was placed on academic probation.
I dropped out of UW after that. Embarrassed and feeling defeated, I succumbed to working entry-level bank jobs. Even when I would be promoted I would berate myself. The damage had been done. Months later I found out I was pregnant with Samuel. It was literally the day before I married his father. I didn’t want to go through with any of this but that cemented it for me. I was stuck with this person who at this point was already physically abusive. This was my life for a decade. When I shared my pregnancy with restaurant friends, they expressed their disappointment. “But you’re so smart,” they said to me. “I can be smart and still have a family,” I had replied. I meant that. They were disappointed in me, too.
It wasn’t until a few years after Kulia and I were together that she decided to return to school to get her bachelors though an online university, WGU. During the first two years, I watched her and felt inspiration growing. Since four days after I turned 30, I had been rewriting my shitty first draft, living afraid but doing the things, regardless. It had been almost twenty years since my time at UW. I took a deep breath and applied amidst my terror. I made the decision to tackle my fear head on, panic attacks, doubt, fear and all.
Studying for WGU was a lot of work but manageable for me and I firmly believe that it was because of my audacity to prove to myself I was smart enough, and capable enough, and willing enough. All things I could have done two decades prior but wasn’t strong enough to follow through.
I kept it to myself, minus my wife and best friend knowing. Why? Because I was doing this for myself and I wanted zero outside noise. Someone once told me that they viewed themselves like an open book, just like me. Except, I’m not an open book. Not at all. Many people talk to me but few know me. I didn’t want to share this. I wanted to get through it on my almost sole belief that I could. Without complaining or excusing myself or quitting. Did I doubt myself? Hell yes. Did I question myself? Hell yes. Did I reprimand myself? Absolutely. But not once did I quit.
WGU gives each student a mentor. Aside from Kulia, my mentor, Chris, helped cheer me through this program that I successfully completed in two years. We had weekly calls where he figured out how to motivate and push me, I figured out how to sidetrack our convos into chatting about anything besides school, he would bring it back to school and I would ramble and doubt myself. He asked me during our first convo if I could handle this when things got tough.
What if someone dies that you’re close to? How will you handle school?
I think I can manage, I told him.
Yesenia. My grandmother. My uncle Bill. I did what I could while being there for them how I could. It made me want to push school aside but I didn’t.
Two years of working a full-time job, raising children, trying to workout and balance life. It was hard. It was exhausting. I had to put things on the back burner, like Island Time with Vee. And running. It made me question my sanity. Not once did I think about cheating. Not once did I think I wasn’t smart enough. The more I passed, the more I gained back the confidence I had once had. The teenager, moving to a new city on her own, didn’t give an eff who came to see her or not, doing her thang, confidence. I felt myself blooming.
And then, my last class was here before my capstone. It was information systems and was all about computers and I hated EVERY.DAMN.SECOND of it. It dragged. I half-assed it and thought that was enough and cockily asked for approval for the final exam. Then I failed it. My last damn test, slapped me right back to nineteen year old Virginia sitting in front of a student investigator admitting she wasn’t good enough for this. I beat myself up about it, I berated myself. I almost allowed it to defeat me.
Except between Kulia and my mentor, Chris, they wouldn’t let me. They said what I needed to hear, lifted my spirits when I wanted to break myself down.
This is your mile 12, Kulia reminded me. The hardest mile of my half-marathon five years ago. She was right.
You didn’t come this far to just come this far, Chris told me. Gawd, he was freakin right.
I put my head down and in the midst of a global pandemic, I passed that final class and began the last mile of the longest run I had taken. And within a couple weeks, I conquered my capstone.
And without further adieu, I present my bachelors in Human Resources Management.
Degree earned the week of my birthday.