NEW YORK, NY -- As the countdown to my college graduation comes to an end, I want to take a moment to recognize that this achievement is as much because of my mother than because of me.
My mom earned her Bachelor's degree from the National Pedagogic University of Colombia on February 4th, 1994. I was born on February 10th. I've always teased my mom and told her she should be thankful that I didn't decide to make my debut earlier.
My mom has always been my best friend. Just look at that chubby smile on my face! That is true love right there.
My mother is the smartest woman I know. That may be a cliche but, to this day, I will go to her for information about anything and everything. She's told me several times that if she had been able to afford it, she would have absolutely loved to be a doctor. I think she would have been great too.
She is also the strongest person I know. My parents divorced when I was very young and my mom practically raised me and my little sister as a single mother. I remember seeing her putting her own meals in the fridge so that we could eat on another day. Looking back, I can only imagine how tough it was for her. But she didn't let my sister and I see that. We were happy, the happiest family. And it was all because of her will to be strong for all of us.
My mom's strength went beyond our household. I went to an all-girls Catholic school in Colombia for the majority of my formative years and I wasn't the most popular kid in school; in fact I was bullied intensely and it was really tough.
My mom held it together for me and stood up for me. I preferred the company of books; she taught me that it was perfectly fine if my best friends were Oscar Wilde or J.K. Rowling.
She told me I should never feel ashamed for wanting to do my own thing.
More than anything, I remember her telling me: "Nena, all the bad and awful things that are happening right now just mean that amazingly good things are in your future."
She was right. I found my own little world and I did a lot of sports, especially swimming. And I kept on reading. My mom's love for reading was definitely passed on to me.
Years after my mom helped me endure mean girls and ensured she was always there during my childhood struggles, something amazing happened: My mom fell in love.
I don't think I had ever seen my mom as happy as she was the day she told me about the man who I now call my dad, our family's beloved "gringo." He asked my mom to marry him after dating for almost two years, during which he traveled back and forth between the U.S. and Colombia.
My mom had to move to the U.S. without me at first but eventually, when I was 15 and my green card application went through, I joined my family in the U.S.
Things weren't as easy as I'd hoped they'd be when I moved to the U.S., though they were definitely better than they were back in Colombia. I joined high school sophomore year and found it a bit hard to fit in because everyone already had their friend groups (most of them had known each other since pre-school!). But I found a few friends and made it through high school.
At the same time, things weren't easy for my mom. Because her Bachelor's degree was from a Colombian university, it didn't hold up the same way for many employers and she was deemed unqualified from jobs just because of that.
She found work as a caregiver for a few families and she seems happy doing that work, even if it doesn't pay very well. I know this is not the work that lets her her make use of her full potential. I think that's why it was so important for her that I got the best education possible.
Senior year, I applied to several schools and it came down to two: a local university and New York University, right smack in the middle of New York City. My financial aid package at the local university was great, and I would have graduated debt free.
At first NYU did not offer me financial aid. It would have meant finding $60,000 a year to be able to go there. We applied for a financial aid reconsideration, and though it took a while to hear back I finally got the great news. I got a financial aid package that was enough for me to only have to worry about a fraction of the tuition, housing and dining for the entire four years of my college career.
I knew I wanted to go to NYU. But even with the generous aid package, we would still be spending a lot more money than if I would have attended my local university. My mom and I spent the next 8 hours before I had to send in my decision planning how we would make this happen.
"Don't worry about the money, we'll figure that out," my mom told me over and over again, "Just choose where you want to go."
My mom wasn't making that much money. That weighed on my mind, and it was hard to make the decision to go to NYU. But she reassured me enough times to know that it was the right choice. I would have to work hard to get good grades and apply for an RA job for my Junior and Senior years to get a housing/dining grant.
But that was nothing compared to my mom's sacrifices. She worked many extra hours to save money so that I wouldn't have to get additional jobs while I was in school. She moved heaven and earth to make it happen for me.
The plan worked. And I am so glad to have had the chance to go to a great school in the Big Apple.
Beside the financial help, my mom helped me adjust to the difficult and rigorous college schedule. She helped me through freshman year heartbreak, tough classes, disagreements with friends or situations with teachers.
She visited me probably more times than the average parent and sent me the best care packages. I truly don't know how she managed.
My mom has made sure that I don't have to worry. She's been doing that my entire life, even when was dealing with an awful divorce after her first marriage.
I wish my mom's name could be right next to mine in my diploma because it is as much hers as it is mine. This graduation is a present to her and a testament to all her sacrifices and strength she's had over the years.
And I know there are many other sons and daughters of parents and immigrants parents who, when they grab their diploma, will be thinking of the moms (and dads) that helped them get there.
There don't seem to be enough words in the Spanish and English dictionary to express how grateful and blessed I feel for my mami. I hope that I become as great and strong woman as she is. I simply could not have asked for a better role model. ¡Feliz día de las madres!