Location: Brooklyn, NY
It is that time of year. Every time I get on Facebook, a new graduate is being congratulated. Caps and gowns and celebrations abound. But one announcement stood out for me, and it was posted by the graduate herself:
It took me some time but I finally accomplished it. Today I graduate from Hunter College with a bachelor’s of arts in human biology and a bachelor’s of arts in psychology!!!
Like Miyoshi herself, her announcement is modest and only hints at the underlying courage and determination it took to reach that goal. For starters, take the fact that Miyoshi is 44 years old and works a full-time job as a medical assistant in Manhattan. She started pursuing her degree over two decades ago, and has had to work classes and studying in and around children, a job, health challenges, long commutes, and the kinds of obstacles that most full-time college students can’t being to understand.
Her childhood was not easy. Her father was murdered when she was three years old and her Puerto Rican mother, who spoke no English, was unable to work because Miyoshi’s younger brother had Blackfan- Diamond Syndrome and required frequent hospitalizations. “Things were tight,” Miyoshi says. The family survived on public assistance and social security (for her brother). As the oldest, Miyoshi helped care for her three younger siblings and started working outside of the home in “off the books” jobs at age twelve to help make ends meet.
But despite her tough childhood and the fact that crime was rampant in her Brooklyn neighborhood and that she only spoke Spanish at home, Miyoshi excelled at school. She was always reading and always had a book in her hand. “I was smart,” she says, “always asking questions and eager to learn.” She was the salutatorian of both her elementary school and middle school.
Her academic trajectory took a detour in high school. She had wanted to go to Stuyvesant, a competitive science magnet school in New York City that only accepted two students from Miyoshi’s middle school. But Miyoshi’s mom, whom Miyoshi describes as overprotective, did not want her taking the train into the city and insisted she go to the local high school in Brooklyn. “I got discouraged,” Miyoshi says. “And I rebelled.” She got pregnant at seventeen and gave birth to her daughter Amandaat age eighteen. “I tried to stay in school,” Miyoshi says. “But it was too difficult. I couldn’t finish the year.” She tried going back to high school after Amanda was born, but then she got pregnant again. Her son Joey was born thirteen months after her daughter was born and two more children followed. By the time Miyoshi was 25 years old, she had four children. She had separated from the father of her first three children (“We were just too young,” she says) and was struggling to provide for her family. School was not in the picture. “I was too busy being a mom and trying to make it on a minimum wage job.”
But Miyoshi had never given up on her dream of doing something in the medical field. She has always found science fascinating (which is why turning down her chance to go to Styvesant was so devastating to her). She saw an ad for sonogram school that intrigued her, but the prerequisite was that she needed a medical assistant degree. So Miyoshi set about getting that degree, solely as a vehicle for getting to sonogram school. She did an externship as a medical assistant in Downtown Women, a busy women’s health clinic in downtown Manhattan, and has been there ever since. “I ended up really liking it,” she says. “And OB is a field that really interests me.”
While working full days at Downtown Women, Miyoshi began taking classes towards her associate’s degree at Borough of Manhattan Community College in 2005. For two years, she survived on very little sleep, taking classes two weeknights and on Saturdays. She would go straight from work to school and would finish classes at 11 pm, pick up her children from her mother’s house, get them showered and to bed and then start on her schoolwork. She’d get a few hours’ sleep before rising to get the kids up and fed, then take them to school, drop off her youngest child at her mother’s house, and then commute for an hour to get into the city to start her work day at 9 am. By 2007, she realized she couldn’t do it anymore. She was exceedingly anemic, and had to get blood and iron transfusions. “I gave up,” Miyoshi says. “It was too much. I had to put it on hold.”
When she turned 40, Miyoshi decided it was time to go back. Her kids were grown except her youngest, and she was married to a man who supported and encouraged her. She finished her associate’s degree at BMCC and applied to Hunter College. She was thrilled when she was accepted and has taken a minimum of five classes per semester, taking a combination of online classes, before work and evening and Saturday classes, to obtain Bachelor of Arts in both Psychology and Biology. As difficult as her studies were at Hunter, she had a great study buddy. Her youngest child, Amaryce, was a student at Hunter too. “She was in classes with me,” Miyoshi says. “We would stay up together studying and we would help each other.” Amaryce would also save her mom a seat and proudly tell her friends that their classmate was her mother.
Miyoshi is now setting new goals for herself. She would like to be a physician’s assistant and
stay in women’s health. She plans to apply to PA programs and also pursue a Master’s in Nutrition. And no one is doubting that she will get there, least of all Miyoshi. “I knew I could do it,” she says. “It is so satisfying to be the student I knew I could be.”
Nor does she regret the many obstacles that came between her and her degrees. She knows that she has been a great inspiration and role model to her kids. “When they are struggling, they look at me and realize that they can’t complain,” she says. “They are so proud of me.” She has also ensured that all of her children value education as much as she does. “I knew I was smart,” Miyoshi says. “But my potential was limited because I didn’t have that piece of paper. Education is vital. You can’t do much without it.”
It is easy for those of us for whom college is a presumptive next step to take our education and our ability to be full-time students for granted. What I find so compelling about Miyoshi’s accomplishment is that it is a reminder to all of us, not just her children, that our education is something to appreciate. And her struggles and perseverance in the face of those struggles is a great reminder that often what we perceive as hardships or stressors are not, in fact, anything close to what some people endure and overcome quietly and stoically without us even taking notice. So here’s to Miyoshi, whose path to her diplomas was truly forged with blood, sweat and tears.