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I’m a 36-year-old single mother and a first-generation college student.

I’m the older sibling to a brother who is high-functioning on the autism spectrum and a sister who has Down syndrome.

I’m also a May 2019* graduate of a community college and an incoming student this fall at the University of California, Los Angeles.

I never imagined that I’d attend a four-year college, especially not while raising and supporting a son. This is the story of how I got there. I hope it will encourage other nontraditional learners to seek out a four-year college degree.

Related: Why so few students transfer from community colleges to four-year universities

My mother, who had only an elementary-level education, raised us on her own and didn’t have any real desire for us to go further in school, to earn any form of higher-education credential.

She worked all day.

While I was in high school, when she’d leave for work, I would tell her that I was running late for class — but I’d never actually go.

Looking back, I can’t believe no one stepped in. In fact, no one said anything until it was too late. Just reading over my high school transcript now makes me cringe. I dropped out my senior year with the education of a 10th-grader.

I should have graduated in the class of 2002, but instead of walking with my classmates onto a graduation stage and into the next hopeful stage of young life, I got a job and entered into adult school more than a year later.

It took me from 2003 until 2011 to complete the credits needed for my high school diploma. It was also in 2011 that I had my son.

Life went on until 2016 — the year the dominoes started cascading. That year, I worked at a gas station, was robbed at gunpoint and was involved in a car accident.

Then, on New Year’s Eve, it all came to a head.

I told myself: “I’ve had such a bad year, I’m going out with a bang.” And I did. I ended up in the hospital from an alcohol and drug overdose.

I woke up in the ICU the next morning. The nurse said, “What are you going to do? You have a second chance.”

Related: How do you manage college online — quarantined with eight people?

I knew I had to change. I had to do something. I wanted a better life for myself and my son. I wanted a college education and a four-year degree.

So I enrolled at Crafton Hills College, a community college in Southern California’s Inland Empire.

College was so hard, but I went two years straight with no semesters off, giving it all the grit I had. The first couple of weeks I scoured the school’s website looking for resources. I knew I couldn’t do it alone — I had to find someone to support me.

I definitely had a lot of self-doubt, but my grades got better as I acclimated and found my way.

I attribute a huge part of my success to my school’s Extended Opportunity Programs and Services because they were the first ones to hold me accountable. I met with them three times a semester.

The transfer counselor I ended up partnering with made all of the difference. She was so caring and encouraging. She understood, and she wanted me to succeed.

In terms of transferring, I had doubts, too. How could I balance university-level courses, work and raising my son? I relied on my support network and resources like the transfer workshops that the college offered.

This month, when I was given an opportunity to share my college and transfer story with hundreds in a webinar focused on the RP Group’s transfer study, I was intimidated at first. I wasn’t sure I would be able to do it. After reading about the four factors in the study, though, I thought about what a good experience it would be and how much the factors related to my journey.

The “support network” factor spoke to me the most. The one thing I would say to other students is: Find your people. Even if that’s normally hard for you. You don’t need many — just one or two will do.

I had about five, including a custodian on our campus. He was always encouraging me.

You never know the exact form in which support may come, but you know it when you feel it.

Faculty and administration at Crafton were instrumental in helping me both realize my potential and achieve my goal of transferring. The president personally assisted me in some of the communications with four-year colleges and Mariana, my transfer counselor, helped me see things in myself that I couldn’t see.

I’m proud to say that I got into UCLA and will be attending this fall.

And despite some anxiety over the possibility of attending my first semester in a Covid-19/online modality, I’m still basking a bit in the reality of the accomplishment.

My friends now say, “Remember how you thought you couldn’t do it?! Remember that?! And you did it.”

Here’s my message to other student-parents and first-gen college students: Getting to college won’t always be easy. It might not be as fast as you hoped. But keep going.

It’s worth it.

*Corrects year.

This story about a single mother who transferred to a four-year college was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up here for Hechinger’s newsletter.

Liza Mejia, a May 2019 graduate of Crafton Hills College, was recently admitted as a transfer student to UCLA. After obtaining her bachelor of arts in sociology, she hopes to pursue a master’s degree and become an academic counselor.

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