My Bittersweet Journey to Graduation

by Samantha Lozano

As the eldest child, my grandmother, whom I’ve always called lola, was forced to quit fifth grade and work as a housemaid to help support her family.

Life in the Philippines was hard. And for those living in the provinces, life was a struggle. Even when you have a job, you still don’t earn enough to be comfortable.

At the age of 17, my lola made a difficult, but brave, life decision. She snuck onto a cargo ship headed to the capital Manila, over 500 miles north of her hometown of Tacloban. Alone and uncertain, she left behind her friends, her family, and everything she had ever known, in search of a future in the big city. With barely an elementary education, she struggled to earn a living. Four years later, she became a single mother and took on the challenge of working multiple odd jobs to make ends meet.

Samantha with her grandmother at her third grade graduation ceremony

In 2002, my mom and I made a similar daunting journey together. But this time, it was over 8,500 miles to a new country.

I was twelve years old when my mom and I left the Philippines to live in the United States. I remember feeling scared about what would happen next. I remember peeking through clouds from the airplane window, staring into my uncertain future.

My mom reassured me that our move was for my future and that as long as we were together, everything would be alright. She said, ever so calmly in our native tongue Tagalog, that if anything ever happened,

“Ang tanging pamana ng magulang sa anak, ay hindi pera o kayamanan — kundi edukasyon”

which translates to: “the greatest gift that parents can pass onto their children is not money or material things, but an education.”

My mom’s childhood, along with my aunt and uncle, was spent living under poverty in the shanty neighborhoods of Manila. Like many immigrants, she viewed the U.S. as the land of opportunity, a land where higher education would pave the way to success for her only daughter.

As newcomers, we both struggled with settling in. Even with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, my mom faced reluctant employers who immediately discounted a degree from a foreign school. She eventually accepted a receptionist job at a car dealership making $11 per hour. She remained emotionally strong for the both of us. Not once did she complain or vent to me about her worries.

For me, everything felt isolating — from having to speak a second language to fitting in with my new neighborhood and new school. I couldn’t help but feel disconnected with our new life. It was only with my mom’s guidance and the support from many great mentors that I managed to survive school at all. Determined to get accepted into a top tier high school, I devoted my time studying and adapting to my new environment. Thankfully, I even made some friends along the way!

In 2008, I graduated high school from Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, one of the best high schools in the city. That same year, I started fall semester at Towson University as a commuter student. The notion of having to go away for college did not apply to me. I thought, “Why should I live on campus and spend thousands of dollars on room and board?” Living at home was practical, more affordable, and allowed me to work part-time when I wasn’t in class.

However, the commute prevented me from fully immersing myself in the traditional campus life. But I made a conscious decision to find ways to get involved and be a part of my college community. I joined the Filipino Cultural Association, volunteered with AmeriCorps Students in Service, participated in the Baltimore Collegetown LeaderShape Program, and even traveled to Russia to attend the Public Relations International Festival in St. Petersburg. Additionally, even when I switched my major five times, my mom helped me figure it out and was incredibly supportive of my decision to pursue a degree in public relations.

Everything was going smoothly until the spring break of my junior year.

On March 11th, my mom passed away from a brain aneurysm. Although the neurosurgery staff tried to revive her, their efforts were too late. I was too late. I hadn’t seen her since that morning, and I didn’t even get a chance to say goodbye.

Samantha and her mom take their last photo together on Thanksgiving Day in 2010

Between studying for finals and working two jobs, I found very little time to process my loss. The hardest thing was grieving the only person who had the power to comfort me. I was alone and uncertain of what my future would look like. The pain became too unbearable that I had to take a few days away from school.

Losing my mom was tough, but accepting her absence was a tougher reality. When you lose your person, it feels easier to give up on your goals than to keep going. Ready or not, I had to decide whether or not to stay in college. I asked myself, “What would my mom do?”

I don’t know how I found that strength, but I pushed through the last two months of spring semester. I just knew that I had to go back to school. I could have easily taken a break, but I used my loss as fuel to keep going, to keep attending class. I found strength in knowing that staying in college kept my mom’s legacy alive. With encouragement from friends and my mom’s family overseas, I motivated myself through nine internships and all the way through graduation.

On May 23rd 2013, my mom’s would-have-been 47th birthday, I proudly received my Bachelor of Science degree in Mass Communications. I didn’t have any cool graduation photos with my mom, but my Instagram caption that day was still, “Mama, I made it!”

Samantha graduating from Towson University on May 23, 2013, the same day as her mom’s birthday

My mom was right: Education is the one gift that nobody can ever take away you.

Although she’s no longer here, I know that she’s proud and trusts that I will be alright.

Seven years later, my mom’s influence and legacy lives on through me and my work at ScholarMatch. Her memory is the driving force that inspires me to work in college access. She has always empowered me to find my purpose and to use my education and experiences to help create better opportunities for generations to come. This same level of empowerment is what I hope to impart to all students of color, who dream of going to college and persisting through graduation.

I couldn’t write about my college story without talking about the women whose stories have helped craft my own. So, to my mom, my lola, my aunt and all mothers who have sacrificed the world for their children — thank you so much.

At the age of 12, Sam Lozano immigrated to Maryland from the Philippines. Growing up in Baltimore City, Sam understands firsthand the effects of poverty and the life-changing impact of a higher education. She graduated from Towson University with a Bachelor of Science in Mass Communications. In college, Sam volunteered with Students in Service AmeriCorps and was a member of the Baltimore Collegetown LeadersShape program. Before joining ScholarMatch, she worked for the CollegeBound Foundation, a college access and scholarship organization dedicated to helping Baltimore students. Her passion for educational equity has fueled her desire to join ScholarMatch. Sam is eager to user her experiences to support the continued growth of the Destination College team and empower first-generation students with their goal of achieving a college degree.

#MyCollegeStory is a ScholarMatch original series highlighting the diverse and varied journeys to and through higher education. Check back each month for new stories!