I graduated from eighth grade in 1999 one month pregnant with my first child, Jesenia, who was born in 2000.
My second child, Joseph, was born in 2003. As a teen mother with little to no family support, I dropped out of high school and stayed home to care for my two young children. By the time my third child, Juelz, was born in 2012, I was working two jobs — at a daycare center Mondays through Fridays during the day, and part-time at a liquor store from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. during the week and from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sundays.
My parents survived with the help of government assistance and public housing. It was an early test of resilience.
Now, I am on track to be the first in my family to graduate from a four-year college. I am earning my bachelor’s degree in early childhood education, along with certificates to teach children with special needs and English language learners, from DePaul University in Chicago. This, after earning my associate degree from a community college. In September, I will begin student-teaching in a second-grade classroom and a preschool classroom in the Chicago Public Schools.
My story is for those who, like me, had no clue how to navigate college, much less saw value in higher education — to encourage and inspire others who come from similar backgrounds: a family with drug and alcohol addiction, single motherhood, a long gap in schooling and more. Despite the odds, anything is possible with hard work, dedication and a support system that provides counseling, mentoring and networking.
Here’s what happened: My life changed a day before my third child was a month old. I was rushed to the emergency room to have a blood transfusion and an emergency dilation and curettage procedure. I had spoken to the doctors about my pain and abnormal bleeding after giving birth. I knew something was wrong, but I trusted the nurses and doctors who were the professionals. They told me it was a normal part of delivering a baby. Except the doctor who delivered my son had left a piece of placenta in me, and for four weeks I was bleeding out. I was told that I only had three units of blood in my body; the average woman’s body holds about nine units.
The doctor said I looked like a zombie and needed emergency surgery. As I was being rolled into the operating room, it looked like a scene from a horror film. I remember her explaining that there was a possibility of death, but she was going to do everything in her power to ensure a successful surgery. At that point, tears began to roll down my cheeks, as I lay on the gurney heading into the operating room. My life was in her hands, and I trusted her to save me.
That’s when I began to focus on my children and where my life was going. If I had died, my children would have been left without a mother. I wanted to be around to take care of them, to see them grow up and become successful. I had graduated from eighth grade but that was it. Going back to school to earn a degree would ensure that I could provide my children better futures. If I wanted my children to finish high school and go to college, I had to model the path for them. Breaking the cycle of poverty would start with me.
Another defining moment came when I received the call in June 2013 that I had passed my GED exam. I enrolled in Truman Community College in Chicago, and earned a 4.0 grade-point average in my very first semester. It had been 13 years since I last attended school, and here I was reaching goals that I had set for myself.
I began to understand the importance of building a network and connecting with others who want to be successful. I had no framework for what a college student was. I did know, though, how to find resources to help me achieve academic success. I joined a federally funded TRIO student support program.
I was able to make a connection with One Million Degrees, the Chicago-based nonprofit that provides a range of services, from mentoring and professional development to financial assistance and networking. These two programs were vital components in my academic journey. They helped me become a more well-rounded student and global citizen. Today, these support systems remain critical components of my academic success.
As I woke up every morning to attend classes, my children were my biggest motivation. I had to be a model to them — their mother was trying to get her life in order to provide them better futures. I could not just tell my children to go to school and expect them to continue to college if their mother only had an eighth-grade education.
Not only am I a mother to three wonderful children, but I am also a big sister and education mentor to five younger siblings. I knew that I had to start the path of academic excellence in our family. We are on that path. My first-born daughter is now a freshman at Dominican University outside Chicago. My sister is a sophomore at Dominican. She and other family members and friends have come to me for advice and tips on how to navigate or even start the process of attending college.
Yes, the future can seem dark in a high-risk household. But, for all of my mother’s struggles, she passed down to me essential values such as respect and the importance of stepping outside yourself to help others in need. Her resilience contributed to my resilience — an important lesson when families face enormous challenges.
You can achieve anything to which you set your mind. I live by the motto that everything in life happens for a reason. The cards one has been dealt do not predetermine one’s future.
This story about resilience in education was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.
Jackie Sanchez is a student at DePaul University.