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Sandra Murillo arrived in the United States from Colombia with one suitcase, $1,000 and a goal to eventually be joined by her daughter to share the new life she would start.
Two decades later, Murillo and daughter, Katherinn Lopez-Murillo, donned their mortarboards and on the same day, graduated from the same college.
Murillo, 46, and Lopez-Murillo, 25, of Woodland Park, New Jersey, earned their college degrees from William Paterson University in Wayne, New Jersey, this week. Lopez-Murillo has a bachelor of arts degree in criminal justice, while her mother earned a bachelor of science in public health.
"It’s never too late even if you dream about something. You just have to hold that dream tight,” Murillo told NBC News Friday.
Thirty-two percent of South American immigrants earn a bachelor's degree or higher after arriving in the United States, according to a 2018 study by the Pew Research Center.
Becoming college-educated was Murillo's goal from the start, but her road to graduation was long.
Murillo's journey started in 1996 when, after a divorce, she left Colombia and immigrated to the United States. Murillo had no relatives, spoke no English, and because of her ongoing custody battle, left then-2-year-old Lopez-Murillo behind.
“I didn’t know English, so it took me two years to take English as a second language and when I started thinking like: ‘OK, when am I going to graduate from college?’ I got discouraged,” she said.
Murillo worked multiple jobs while taking classes to learn English. She completed a training program that allowed her to work in health care as a medical assistant.
“That was a very difficult time, but I always pray to God to give me the strength and I am always very positive about the future and I always knew that one day I was going to bring my daughter here with me,” Murillo said.
Mother and daughter were reunited in 2006 when Lopez-Murillo moved to New Jersey just before her 12th birthday.
Despite the struggles of working full-time and being a single parent, Murillo continued to advance her education. She enrolled in an associate's degree program at a local community college while her daughter was still in high school and then went on to pursue her bachelor’s degree at William Paterson in 2016.
Murillo has always considered education essential for personal progress and impressed that belief on her daughter.
”Unless I was sick, or something terrible was happening, I was going to school,” Lopez-Murillo said. “She told me if you don’t educate yourself, life is going to be so much harder for you.”
Lopez-Murillo began working as a cosmetologist after she graduated high school. But she didn’t think she could succeed in college.
“At some point she said to me, ‘I don’t think school is for me,'” Murillo recalled her daughter saying.
But eventually Lopez-Murillo began to desire a career change, and her mother’s pursuit of an associate's degree soon motivated her to follow her mother's path.
“We need to study or we’ll never get ahead in life. We women especially, we have to be empowered,” Murillo told her university in a news release. “I thank God every day for giving me the strength, and for giving me this wonderful daughter who was there with me through the hard times, and for making this more special because she’s graduating with me.”
Murillo encouraged others considering furthering their educations to enroll.
“Whatever you have in mind, hold your dreams tight and work for it,” Murillo said. “That’s what I told my daughter. Don’t ever stop dreaming!”