ever thinking that one day she and her daughters would all attend school at the same time, Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community member Lillia Munoz saw herself and her two daughters, Julie and Jessica Sepulveda, do just that.
“My educational experience has been a long one. I have been going to college for the past five years, and although it has been challenging to juggle full-time employment, school and family, it has been rewarding as well,” said Munoz.
Munoz said she and her girls have pulled together to help each other as they pursued their educational goals.
Munoz has been working for the Community for more than 20 years in the Human Resources Department. She began as a youth worker and liked it so much that when she graduated from high school she applied for a permanent position.
She attended Western University and graduated with a bachelor of arts degree in human resources management on May 20.
Being at the department that long, Munoz knew she had experience, but she lacked the degree in human resources.
“From as far back as I can remember, I always told myself that as soon as my kids were grown I would pursue my education,” she said. “The moment finally came when it was time to act on my goal. It just so happened that we all decided to pursue our college education around the same time,” said Munoz.
“We each took different avenues to pursue our educational goals. Julie and Jessica chose to go through the community college then university route, and I went through the non-traditional college path,” said Munoz. Nevertheless, they all pursued a course of study tailored to their distinctive needs.
Munoz’s inspiration came from her mother, who she said has always been her source of strength and support. Her daughters were a big part of her motivation as well.
“I wanted to set the example for them and show them that I support them in all the positive things they do,” said Munoz. “In this case, I wanted my actions to speak louder than words, so I guess it was my way of saying, ‘I support you so much that I’m going to do it with you.’”
Munoz’s younger daughter, Jessica Sepulveda, started earning college credit when she was still in high school.
“It was always hard for me to know exactly what I wanted to major in, and this is why I decided to get my degree in general studies before transferring to ASU,” said Jessica. “After graduating [from] high school a semester early in December 2009, I went straight to Mesa Community College, where I was previously going in high school in the A.C.E./R.E.A.C.H. program.” She transferred to Scottsdale Community College in June 2010, where she graduated with an associate’s degree in general studies.
“I always wanted to go to college, but I had my baby, David, who is now three, when I was 17 years old and a junior in high school,” said Jessica. “I was determined to graduate [from] high school and continue to higher education. Having a baby at a young age wasn’t going to be a setback, but a motivation for me.”
Jessica saw her mother, who was also a single mother of four, and older sisters graduate with their bachelor’s degrees, and that encouraged her to want to continue to graduate school.
“With beautiful and successful women like them as my support, I know anything is possible,” said Jessica. “I’m very blessed to get my tuition and books paid for, so there was no reason why I shouldn’t further my education. Online classes were great because I was able to be a stay-at-home mother.” Jessica will be attending Arizona State University in spring 2013 to earn a bachelor’s degree in communications.
After taking sociology and psychology classes in high school, Munoz’s daughter Julie Sepulveda knew what career she wanted to pursue. “I fell in love with learning and studying about how people function in society and how they develop within their environment,” said Julie. “I like to help people and found that the two areas were such a great fit for me.”
Julie attended Mesa Community College for four years and received her associate’s degree. She then transferred to Arizona State University West for two years, earning a bachelor’s degree in sociology with a minor in psychology.
“It was an amazing feeling after receiving my diploma knowing I was the first person in my fa mily to go to college and graduate,” said Julie. “I felt proud for striving to succeed, and I was glad that my family was proud of me as well. As I walked across that stage, I saw my family cheering and holding up signs and screaming my name. I tried to hold back the tears when I thanked them for all of their love and support.”
Julie is currently a social worker with the SRPMIC Social Services Department, working with the Fatherhood & Healthy Relationships Program under the Life Enhancement and Resource Network (LEARN). She plans to continue to help the men and women of the Community to succeed as the amazing fathers and mothers that they could be.
“My whole life I felt the need to accomplish something and make my family proud. I didn’t just want to be another statistic, which I could have easily been given my childhood and my past. I wanted to be better than that,” said Julie. “I wanted to make something of myself and prove to myself that I would not give up. The support and help from my family, especially my grandmother, is what gave me the strength to finish. There were long nights of studying, writing long research papers, summer school, and the horrible commute all the way to Glendale, but in the end it was so worth it. And to see my mother and my grandmother standing there to greet me at the end of the stage was the best payoff of my education.
“I would definitely encourage the young people in the Community to further their education,” Julie continued. “The benefit of having an education is great, and we as Native people need to understand that. It may not always be easy, but life isn’t easy. It takes work and determination to get what you want, and in the end it is worth it. When you think you wouldn’t get the support that you need from your family or your friends, just know that I support you.”
Last year, Munoz’s daughter Heaven finished college as well. Heaven went straight from high school directly to Arizona State University, where she received her bachelor of arts degree in family and human development. Heaven currently volunteers twice a week at a teen parenting class in central Phoenix and also for Couplet Care, a program in which volunteers care for newborns and their mothers at Banner Desert Medical Center in Mesa. Heaven is planning on continuing into the master’s program.
Support and Encouragement
“At one time or another, we have all struggled with the demands of school, but we stood by each other and would offer words of encouragement or other support to keep each other motivated,” Munoz said about herself and her daughters. “This was tough, especially toward the end of the last semester when we were tired and felt that we couldn’t go any further. We were just burned out.”
As she walked to the stage to accept her degree, she couldn’t help but reflect on the sacrifice and self-discipline that it took to get to that point.
“There were many times when I was up late writing papers or on the weekends when I had to give up a family function because I had an assignment due. It was not an easy road, but in retrospect it was well worth it,” Munoz said.
In the fall, Munoz will start working toward her master’s degree. “I have enjoyed my educational experience so much that I want to extend my educational journey, because the challenge is exciting to me and it provides me personal satisfaction and a sense of self-accomplishment,” she said.
“I would like to thank the Community and the Education/Higher Education Department for the financial assistance. Our educational accomplishments would not have been possible without your support,” said Munoz. “One of the things I always told my girls is that it doesn’t matter how long it takes you to get your degree, as long as you get there.
“As I look back now, I think, Who would have thought that this one-time teenage parent and single mother would raise daughters who would all be college graduates?” said Munoz. “The odds were against us from the beginning, but with the love and support of my family, I was determined not to be another statistic. I am very humbled, grateful and honored to be a mother of four wonderful daughters. I am a blessed woman.”