Sarah Nunez Perseveres to Make a Positive Impact

Wednesday, December 7, 2022
Phoenix College student Sarah Nunez
Sarah Nunez with her aunts
Sarah Nunez as a young mom
Sarah Nunez in her previous work at a jewelry store
Sarah Nunez with her grown children
Sarah Nunez quote
Sarah Nunez with other Phoenix College ambassadors
Sarah Nunez camping with her sister and aunt (L) and surfing (R)
Sarah Nunez is a Phoenix College graduate

En español. "I bleed blue and gold," said Sarah Nunez, a Phoenix College (PC) ambassador, honors student, and Student Success Specialist. "I absolutely love this school. It's changed my life." Sarah's positivity and calm demeanor belie the many challenges she has faced.

On the second floor of the C building, her favorite building on campus, Sarah sat facing the window. Her brown hair's blue highlights frame the warm smile on her face. With a buoyant energy and steady voice, she recalled her childhood.

Growing up

"Growing up, we didn't have a lot," Sarah said. "My mom was a single mom, and I did not know who my father was–he wasn't in the picture until I was fifteen years old, and even then he was kind of in and out of my life. Being young and a single mom, my mom didn't have much support. She struggled to find a good job that supported us, so we stayed with family. We lived with my grandmother for a while and then my grandfather for a little while. It was rough because all these houses had different dynamics and ways of doing things. Because of the family history–there was some abuse involved–I consider myself a survivor, not a victim."

She recounted, "There were times when we didn't have food in the house. We didn't have a bed to sleep in sometimes. We slept on the floor or on] furniture." Other times, Sarah lived apart from her mom: "I went from one family member to the next, and from one school to the next." She attended at least twelve schools before dropping out of high school at 15 years old to support her mom and younger siblings.

"I saw a lot of things that a young child probably shouldn't have seen," she said, "like drug use and abuse. And I just got tired of it. My mom had met someone new [who] was a deadbeat dad [to my brother and sister]. We had gotten to the point where we were living in a shelter, and I decided that this was enough. I was tired of going without. I didn't want my brother and sister going without. There were times when there wasn't enough money for formula and diapers, so I decided I would go to work."

Like many teenagers, Sarah's first job was at a fast-food restaurant, Wendy's. "At least I could depend on a meal once in a while," she said. Because she was so young, she didn't have the foundation, structure, or discipline to break out of the destructive cycle in which she grew up. She went on to repeat a lot of the same behaviors. "It was the norm for me," she said.

At 17, she had her first child but knew she didn't want him to live the childhood she had. She was determined her son would never go without. "I worked two jobs at times," she said. At 19, she met her soon-to-be husband and moved away from her mom, but that was short-lived. By the time she had given birth to her third child, at 21, her husband at the time, now her ex, had been on and off drugs and in and out of jail. On his last attempt at rehab, she decided that was enough. "I couldn't let my kids see that or put them through that." She and her mom found a small apartment. Her mom stayed home with the kids while Sarah worked. Sarah recognized change was needed, but it still hadn't clicked what needed to change. "I just knew this was not the life I wanted for me or my kids," she said. 

Return to School

Several years later, in her mid-20s, Sarah decided to return to school. "I remember being so scared because I didn't have my GED. I didn't know where to start." She also didn't know what the college experience was going to be like with work and kids. The questions–Am I going to fail? Am I able to handle these responsibilities as well as schoolwork?–persisted. She enjoyed being at community college but felt disconnected. She had to drop a few classes to balance work and family, yet her psychology class left an impression. "It opened my eyes to what was going on in my life, my home, and those patterns," she said. However, her college experience was short-lived. She had to go back to work full-time.

A few years later, she gave school another try. She attended a different college and felt even more disconnected at that campus. Mid-way through the semester she became ill. She needed to be hospitalized and required surgery. "I went to my professor and remembered them telling me the best they could do was give me a W [W = Withdrawal]," she said. "I was just so disappointed. The hard work and effort that I had been putting in just evaporated. After that, I kind of just gave up on the idea."

Without an education, she acknowledged how fortunate she was to have maintained good jobs throughout her career. From Wendy's, she transitioned into working various positions in jewelry and retail establishments. Working in retail, fine jewelry especially, which required working closely with people passing jewelry back and forth within a foot or two of customers, became precarious during the pandemic. The store was eventually shut down and her options were limited. Sarah knew she didn't want to work in retail anymore and decided to look at her situation positively as another opportunity to refocus and reach toward her dreams.

Phoenix College

Sarah thought about pursuing her education again. "Maybe I'll just go for a certification," she remembered thinking. Yet, she was hesitant to return to community college after two failures. Her grandfather finally convinced her to try Phoenix College (PC). He had been an academic advisor at the college, and Sarah had taken her initial placement tests at PC, so she was familiar with the campus. She enrolled in Fall 2020: "I was going to start and end with a certificate. I had been put off by college at this point." But after her first semester, she was inspired by her professors to go further and do more. 

One professor who proved influential was Communications professor Rody Randon. "I don't know what it was about him," Sarah said. "He made it exciting to be here and to learn. The material I was learning grabbed my attention. He made his classroom inviting. I didn't feel like an outcast anymore. I felt out of place being a non-traditional student with kids, but he made it welcoming for me and the other classmates." Reassured by Professor Randon that she belonged, Sarah knew she was where she needed to be and was determined to finish strong.

Randon also credits Sarah for not giving up. "Sarah no doubt has had her share of life challenges, and she often felt defeated," he said. "In time, she realized her worth and slowly embraced that she was created to make a productive contribution to our world." No longer seeking only a certificate, Sarah is eager to pursue a Master's in Communications. "I don't want to stop," she said. "For the first time in a long time, I was sure of my future, what I wanted, and where I was going and how."

CARE Referral

Yet, disaster struck again. During her second semester at PC, Sarah woke to the sound of rushing water and discovered a leak from the second floor had flooded the first floor of her two-story home. "The ceiling had caved into the bottom floor," she said. "Everything was destroyed. She didn't have renter's insurance to afford a hotel and wasn't sure how she would replace what was lost. "We were weeks away from expecting a little one," she said. Her son was expecting a baby, her grandchild. "All the things we bought for her had been destroyed, as well as the other children's belongings.” She thought, Well, I'm going to have to work overtime. This is going to take me away from my education. This is going to take me away from completing the semester. But she shared with her professors her predicament. She remembered telling them, "I don't know if I will be in class the next few weeks. I don't know what to do." Within a day, she received a call from PC's counseling department.

"That was so touching," she said. "This professor cared so much about me that they had the counseling department follow up with me to see what we needed." A small grant helped pay for a hotel room for a few nights until Sarah and her family figured out where to live and could buy the clothing they needed. While the grant wasn't much, Sarah noted the gesture was grand. "It provided that little bit of cushion so I could finish the semester and not worry about working extra hours."

Helping Other Students

"Knowing what I know now," she says, she would tell any struggling student, "Don't give up. There is help for you here." She lists all the resources available at PC, from free counseling and the food pantry to Bumstead's Resources Room, which she points out on the tours she gives as a PC Ambassador. "When I see others who are discouraged and going through the struggles that I went through, it's nice to let them know that you're not alone. How can I help? What resource can I put you in touch with on campus? It's rewarding for me to see others succeed and take advantage of what we offer on this campus."

While Sarah credits many on campus for the support she needed to persevere, it's clear Sarah has also greatly impacted the faculty and students at Phoenix College. Amy McPherson, co-advisor to the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society, noted, "Sarah is an active member of the Rho Pi Chapter. She contributes at every meeting and plays a huge role in our Honors in Action undergraduate research project. In fact, Sarah has been so instrumental to our success that our chapter is writing a letter to recognize her as a Distinguished Chapter Member as part of our International Hallmark Award submissions."

The Future

While Sarah completed her Associate of Arts degree and her certificate in Human Resources Management in May 2022, she continues to take classes. She'll have another certificate in Marketing, and an Associate's in Business Management by May 2023. She is working on the last credits she needs to transfer to Northern Arizona University (NAU) for the 90/30 Strategic Leadership Program: "One of the reasons I chose NAU was because I could stay here and complete 90 credits before transferring for my last 30 credits." Sarah has it all planned out: "Once I finish my Strategic Leadership program, I'll finish with my Master's in Communications one year later." Besides her ambassador role, Sarah is also a part-time Student Success Specialist for PC: "When I got the job here, I was even more excited. I was like, Yes! I'm home. This is where I want to be. "

She chose the human resources field because she sees it as a way to make a change and positively impact the lives of employees. "I've enjoyed the recruitment and retention aspect of business management," she said. "Communication is very important: in our everyday lives, in how we interact with our loved ones, our communities and our bosses, and those we supervise. I want to make sure those in business have a purpose, know that they are appreciated and valued, and that they matter. I have a lot to look forward to."

Many students who start their college career at Phoenix College plan to continue on for a  bachelor’s degree. In fact, hundreds of students transfer to other colleges in Arizona and beyond every year. Our Transfer Center will work with you and your academic advisor to help you make the most of your journey at Phoenix College and plan for a smooth and successful transfer.