How Growing Up Puerto Rican Taught Me What It Really Means To Be Successful

A new kind of Cinderella story.

Written by A Plus senior editor Mandy Velez.

My fairy tales never ended the same as everyone else's, even though I always thought they did growing up. As I got older and moved on to reading chapter books, I began to realize the stories my mom read to me at night stood out from the rest. 

My favorite fairy tale heroine was Cinderella. If you had asked me to recite her story in elementary school, it would have sounded like this: Girl is slave to evil stepmother and stepsisters, girl gets a fairy godmother, girl goes to the ball, girl puts her relationship on pause to attend and graduate from college, girl gets a job, then girl marries the handsome prince — in that order. 

Did you catch that? 

My mother was the first person in my Puerto Rican family to go to college, so she had high expectations for me. My grandparents, who never made it beyond eighth grade, taught my mother that education was the key to success. And my mother passed that on to me with support from my entire family: grandparents, aunts, and an uncle. (He wrote to me while serving time in jail. That's dedication.)


My mom and me.

The support came first in the form of fairy tales, then in the form of encouragement, Latina leadership programs and after-school activities. However, it all really began to take hold the year my mother petitioned to put me in a kindergarten class despite the fact that I was technically too young. I was the only 4-year-old in the class. My family joined in as I got older — my grandfather printed at least 50 copies of the 5-page picture book I put together in kindergarten — and so by the first grade, I was zipping through the copy of Black Beauty and reading at a fifth grade level. 

Even everyday adolescent life lessons revolved around, well, achievement. When I told my grandfather about mean kids at school, he'd kneel down to meet me at eye level.

"It's not about how tall you are," he'd say, referencing my ability to put up a fight or defend myself. "It's about what's up here." He'd then point to his temple with an index finger. 

Soon, all he had to do was point at his temple and I immediately finished the phrase, like when a doctor taps the sweet spot on your knee and your body knows exactly what to do. 

"It's up here," I'd repeat, proudly. 

Fast-forward 10 years.

Everything they did for me worked.

I got straight As in grade school. I also performed well in high school and got into every university I applied to, from Syracuse to Boston University. I followed in my mother's footsteps, becoming the second family member on her side to graduate college in my twenties, and the first person to graduate college ever on my biological father's side. Even if I didn't have a job yet, by donning a cap and gown and accepting a college diploma, I already beat the odds. 

It really does take a village. 

My academic success translated into career success when I landed my dream job three months after college: working as an editor for The Huffington Post. But even with the fulfilling job in a city I'd always dreamed of living in, my metric for success began to change. 

My hours were long, friends were scarce and though I was making an evident difference, I longed for more. One weekday morning, I sat on the subway surrounded by strangers, yearning for the days when my grandparents were just a car ride away. I missed how my mother would hassle me to do my schoolwork on weeknights and how our family joined together every Friday evening to have pizza.

Work didn't fill my heart up. I needed more. I wanted more from life, even though I seemingly had it all. 

As the subway screeched to a stop at 42nd Street, it clicked. Success doesn't only have to come from school or work, though I'm certainly proud of my accomplishments. Perhaps success also comes from making the ones you love proud, like when you call home to tell your grandfather about your promotion and you can hear the happiness in his voice.  Perhaps success comes from being a good person and surrounding yourself with good people. 

Perhaps success doesn't just come from having a Cinderella story, but from having those you love around you to share those milestones with. From graduating college, and then marrying the prince.

Actually, no, keep the diploma, but forget the prince. Family is all you really need. 

My mother and me on her graduation day. (Left) Me on my graduation day. (Right)

Join Strayer University in the Readdress Success Movement to change Merriam-Webster's definition of success! For every signature, Strayer University will donate 50 cents to Dress For Success! 


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