An Emotional Interview with a 35-Year-Old Student On the Struggles of Completing College

Sofia Hernandez has always dreamt of becoming a nurse. A diligent student, she graduated high school with honors and enrolled at Fresno State. But setbacks forced her to withdraw after the first semester, and following numerous attempts, she still has been unable to complete her degree. Now, 17 years later, Sofia is trying once again to finish college, and in an emotional interview, recounts the struggles she has faced in trying to achieve her dream. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

Thanks for talking to me Sofia. The Michelson 20MM Foundation strives to eliminate barriers students face in higher education, so sharing your personal story will better inform our work as we try to achieve equity for people like yourself.

Hi Miguel. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to tell my story.  I can already feel the tears coming.

Take as much time as you need.

Okay… well, my dream has always been to be a nurse, specializing in pediatrics or labor and delivery. It’s been hard to accomplish. Being raised by two immigrants who didn’t know how to navigate the college process was hard. They expected me to go to college without giving me the resources. My parents also didn’t put me in extracurricular activities so I missed out on a lot of opportunities there. 

Where did you grow up?

Mid-City (Los Angeles). I’ve lived there since I was four years old, the time my mom immigrated here from Nicaragua, where I was born. 

Which high school did you attend?

I went to LA High. Actually, my home school was Manual Arts but my mom didn’t want me to go there because she heard that there was a lot of gang violence and she wanted to keep me away from bad influences. 

Tell me about your college journey. 

It was tough because the college counselors at my high school weren’t very helpful. Plus, I didn’t have strong support from my parents even though they expected me to attend college. I saw other students getting tutored and receiving SAT prep, and none of that was available to me. 

And still you managed to graduate with honors.

Yes, in 2002, and I was accepted to Fresno State’s nursing program but unfortunately I dropped out after the first semester because both of my parents were diagnosed with diabetes. Also, my dad was diagnosed with a brain tumor and my mom was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver. I’m an only child so I had to help them financially. 

(Sofia pauses for a tearful moment)

We didn’t have much family so I felt responsible to help out. I’ve always put my dream on hold to take care of them, and my dad passed away when I was nineteen so I had to take responsibility as head of the houhousehold.

It’s a big responsibility. I’m sorry you went through that.

I got a job and helped out with my mom’s health. And I still never gave up. I still tried to take a class here or there at Pasadena City College. And I decided maybe it’s not going to happen. Maybe I needed to go into social work where it was less competitive and I could get my degree faster so I’d have more time to help my mom with rent and food and expenses. Then my mom got sicker and sicker so I left PCC. 

What happened after that?

I tried to figure out whether to continue with nursing or not. Nursing textbooks and all that stuff cost money. Then you have your scrubs and at some point you have to do clinical hours which means leaving your full-time job.

About how much does one of those books cost?

An anatomy book cost about $150. Then there’s microbiology and organic chemistry and physiology and supplemental items. All of that is expensive. And at one point I thought I could be a full-time student and have a full-time job, but I was struggling with school. In nursing, a C is considered an F. You have to earn a B or better. I was getting two or three hours of sleep a night and falling asleep behind the wheel. 

It wasn’t working out for me so I tried to get my certification as a medical assistant. 

Where did you go?

Bryman College. It was amazing because I learned how to draw blood and take vitals, and I knew that’s what I wanted to do but it wasn’t happening, the financial part. So I got an internship at USC Medical Center, but once they told me the hours I couldn’t do it. 

Where were you working at that time?

I had two jobs. Jamba Juice and Express. 

And how much did those jobs pay?

I was a manager at Jamba Juice so I think I was getting $11 an hour. And at Express I was making $8.25. 

You were working two jobs while at Byman College and taking care of your mom?

And I didn’t graduate. As a prerequisite, I had to do clinical hours at a site, so I didn’t finish. I didn’t get the certificate. 

Did you end up owing the college money?

Absolutely. I was paying off a loan for a degree I didn’t even get.

How long did it take to pay it off?

Five or six years. And it bothered me making those payments, $25 to $125 a month. I ended up paying it off sooner because I got a position as an intake specialist at Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater LA. And I’ve been there for thirteen years.

You still work there?

I do. But August 23rd is my last day as a full-time employee. I’m going part-time and becoming a full-time student which means I’ll finally be able to qualify for scholarships and financial aid.

Correct me if I’m wrong, Big Brothers Big Sisters is a mentorship organization that connects youths to positive role models?

Yes and I wish my mother had put me in it when I was a child. Laughs. It makes me think about how important it is to have a mentor. 

Are you still a caretaker at home?

Unfortunately my mother passed away two years ago. But I think that I was very blessed. Even though I didn’t finish my schooling I was able to be a nurse at home. Take her vitals, give her medication, bathe her, things like that. Getting an in-home nurse is expensive, but she had me. And I think it inspires me to finish school because I have a caretaker personality, and I want to save a life. I have the skills for it. So now it’s bittersweet. I can pursue my dream. 

Where are you studying now?

LA Community College. I’m getting units that I can use to transfer to a Cal State or UC school. 

Where do you plan to transfer?

My dream school is UCLA, but nursing programs are so competitive. They’re small. At UCLA, for 1,780 applicants, only ten get accepted in the fall. And you need a 3.8 GPA. But I’m still hopeful. I’m part of a program at UCLA called CCCP, College Communities Center Program. And it really helps us transferring and nontraditional students navigate the system – find scholarships, write personal statements. I enrolled last year and just graduated. 

What’s your biggest cost as a student?

Rent, food, and books. Once I become a full-time student I’ll get a student ID which means I’ll finally be able to access the college food pantry. As a part-time student, I can’t. 

What will change once you get that degree?

I’ll get a feeling of accomplishment. And I’m looking forward to being a traveling nurse, helping in developing countries, Nurses Without Borders. I want to be able to give back and make a difference with the skills and education I received.

Would you be the first in your family to achieve a college degree?

Yes, the first one. 

I want to thank you deeply for chatting with me and sharing your story. It’s very inspirational.

Thank you.