When Channel Baez found out she was pregnant her senior year of high school, she felt like people stopped believing in her.
“I had always excelled in my high school classes; all of the teachers thought I was going places and would do big things with my life. But when I got pregnant, I felt I had lost all support.”
People told Baez to get abortion, to drop out of high school, to essentially give up.
“Losing everyone’s support and feeling like no one believed in me was so hard – I almost started believing them. But instead, I decided to prove them wrong.”
Channel graduated with her high school diploma in the summer of 2002 and gave birth to her daughter that September.
After taking a semester off to care for her newborn, Baez decided to enroll at MassBay Community College.
“I went to school at night time so I could be with my daughter in the day, and worked on the weekends. The two-year degree took me four years.”
But as she applied herself, Baez fell in love with education.
“In the beginning, college was a place where I was finding myself. But then I started to get A's and see all of the hard work paying off. It felt so good.”
Baez graduated from MassBay CC with her associate degree in 2007 and then transferred to Framingham State University.
But Baez found Framingham was tailored for traditional students, and the demands of work and motherhood were too much.
“It was difficult to work my class schedule around my job and I couldn’t do the things on the weekends that professors wanted me to. After a year and a half, I realized I needed to look for something more flexible.”
Baez applied to The University of Massachusetts Boston, and while none of her credits from her year and a half at Framingham would transfer, she decided to transfer to UMass Boston with her AA degree: “I was starting all over again.”
“There were plenty of times that I really considered giving up.”
But what kept Baez going was her daughter.
“I realized that if I don’t do this there is no alternative. I know what it’s like to be the head of household, the single parent. I can get a full-time job now, but what am I setting up for my daughter and her future?”
Baez made sacrifices to dedicate herself to her education – and UMass Boston noticed. Dr. Reyes Coll-Tellechea, associate professor of Hispanic Studies, nominated Baez to apply for the Harvard Latino Leadership Initiative.
Baez was one of only 50 students chosen for the 2011 Latino Leadership Initiative program. Harvard says that the “Latino community will double in size over the next 40 years and will comprise more than 30% of the United States population by 2050.”
The Harvard Latino Leadership Initiative was founded in 2010 as a way to “develop a cadre of next generation leaders.”
As part of the Initiative, the students meet at Harvard for an intensive week-long leadership development program, taking classes on topics such as social change, community development, advocacy, and leadership.
Baez said the program made her rethink her leadership abilities.
“We had professors from across the country coming in and telling us we already had the tools to make a difference. They asked, ‘who is stopping you? You are good enough. You have permission to change the world and live your life and be the best you can possibly be without being judged or stereotyped.’”
She said as a Latina and a single mom, she felt so many things were going against her. But that changed at the Institute.
“I have never in my life felt as supported as I did during the LLI. It was so incredible to have so many people who believed in your potential," she said.
The students also developed a community service project to implement on their campus. Baez’s cohort at UMass Boston implemented a mentorship program where they visited 8th grade classrooms in inner city Boston and shared their personal struggles to motivate the 8th graders to stay in school.
Despite Baez’s college success, she still faced challenges.
"This has been the longest journey of my life - I’m 28 and I started all of this when I was 18.”
Many are inspired by Baez’s story and tell her it has inspired them to return to school. She is thrilled to be a role model – she is a family support worker with teen parents for the Children’s Trust Fund – but is the first to remind those who look up to her that going to college as a single parent “comes with great sacrifice."
In one semester, Baez took six classes while working and taking care of her daughter. She never went out other than for school or work so that she could spend time with her daughter.
"I want to tell them the truth – that anything is possible but you must be prepared to sacrifice everything to achieve your goal," she said. "If you aren’t willing to do that, you will never get ahead.”
Baez said she owes so much to the community of peers, professors, and family who supported her during her college journey.
“Even if you start out trying to prove others wrong, you really need people who believe in you, who push you forward.”
Dr. Reyes Coll-Tellechea was one of Baez’s professorial mentors who gave her the support she needed.
“Sometimes, I would be crying in her office wondering if I could do this, and she would just tell me to visualize myself crossing the stage at graduation, with my daughter watching.”
Just a month ago, Baez finally graduated.
“As the first Latina female in my entire large family to do this, I feel like I’ve broken a chain, and now it’s possible for the next one.”
As Baez walked across the stage, her phone buzzed with a text message. It was from her daughter.
It read: “Mommy, I am so proud of you.”
Isa Adney is a Fox News Latino Education and Community Columnist and the author of Community College Success (NorLights Press, 2012), available on Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com. She advises students across the country on how to break socio-economic barriers and build positive educational communities. You can connect with Isa on Twitter, Facebook, and www.isaadney.com.
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