Following your professional passion

One of my besties and I were in deep conversation when I realized, she’s a professional success in a career she is passionate about, despite enormous odds. I look at her experience as a guide to help others follow their passion, so I asked her to share her incredibly admirable story.
Sónia’s an immigrant without a long family history of college (or even high school) education.  The antagonist in her story isn’t just her personal history, but numerous people along the way who continued to question her passion and drive.  In the face of adversity, Sónia proved her naysayers wrong and kept going.  This is her story.

Sónia is from humble beginnings, but had a spark.  In her words…

As a little girl, I was painfully shy, so I could easily blend into the background.  I could quietly listen in on clandestine adult conversations which often took place around large dining room tables and were paired with decadent desserts, strong coffee, and sweet liqueurs to keep those verbal juices flowing late into the night.  I loved listening and hearing different sides and points of view to a story.

In grade school, I was a miniature playground mediator. I was equal parts good listener and strong moral compass to dictate the rules as they should be.  At age nine, with no prior exposure to the mental health system or any ancillary branch, I wrote in my diary “When I grow up, I want to be a child sikiatrist.” [I meant psychiatrist, but this was before the advent of spellcheck, so be easy.]

At a young age, I decided I wanted to dedicate my professional self to counseling others.

How did I know this was my interest?
  • It always made me happy.
  • It had always played a starring role in my life.

I had a lot going against me.

  • I was an immigrant from a working class family who never completely assimilated.
  • My community did not value academic achievements as much as hard work and labor.
  • No one in my family had ever gone to college. My grandparents never learned to read or write.
  • I attended one of the worst school systems in the nation during my formative years.
  • The year before I was to start high school, the local public high school had dissolved the honors program.
  • My single parent family could not afford to pay for one of the few local private schools. Even with financial aid, the extra costs of a uniform and books would deplete the minimal resources we had.

I was told I would fail many times, by many people, but when naysayers said I couldn’t or shouldn’t follow my passion, I kept at it.

I wanted to become a counselor, but my family insisted people would never talk about their problems to a stranger. My family told me I would be better off being a secretary and finding a good husband. [One such conversation led to my mother asking whether I wanted to vacation in Europe in hopes of finding a suitable mate. No… really.]

I wanted to get the best education I could, so I earned a scholarship to one of the most prestigious private high schools in the US. But, upon acceptance to my high school, one of my teachers told me I “didn’t know what [I] was getting [myself] into” because I would be going to school with kids who had been exposed to the best schools, tutors, and family supports.

My grandmother claimed I was abandoning my family in order to pursue my education after my mother unexpectedly fell ill.

When I inquired about a social work program at a college fair, one university representative chuckled and asked why I would “waste [my] education on such a worthless degree.” [She would never know I would earn over $120,000 in scholarships to make my dream a reality!]

The spark turned into flames which could not be quenched – I had found my passion

I have always had a passion for altruism, for listening to people’s stories, and for helping people [in my home girl Oprah’s words] “live [their] best life.”

It wasn’t until I was 22 years old, working in a child psychiatry department of a large hospital as a recent college graduate, I connected the pieces. As the department secretary, I sat in on planning meetings and clinical updates on patients and families we worked with. I asked questions, and effortlessly made connections with the parents. Surprisingly, the parents called me, the department secretary, to provide updates on the patient.  I absolutely LOVED this.

Then, a wise mentor shared: “If you want to provide direct counseling, you should become a social worker.” A-HA moment!

The pieces came together:

  1. I have an uncanny ability to build rapport with even the most guarded patients and families
  2. I feel honored to bear witness to another’s best and worst times
  3. I have a desire to guide people towards their greatest goals

These components could become my career and this made my professional passion very clear; I wanted to become a social worker.

I found secret supports.

  • I won the Principal’s Award in 8th grade, which celebrated “tenacity even when it was challenged or unpopular.”  My grade school principal saw potential in me, and encouraged me to excel. He appeared to never be satisfied with my achievements.  I was not at the top of my class, I think he saw my wit and a spark in me.
  • I am true to myself.  I am resilient, resourceful, headstrong, and have always enjoyed a challenge.
  • I found a scholarship program that pushed me so far outside of my comfort zone I never turned back.
  • I was accepted into one of the top three social work programs in the country (Ivy League!)
  • I feared I would never be able to afford Ivy League tuition without a mountain of debt. Then, I discovered Columbia University had a tuition exemption program for employees. I applied to nearly two dozen jobs in less than a week, and landed a job after my first interview. I was candid about my intent on pursuing an education on the University’s dime, but vowed a tenure of hard work and enthusiasm.
  • I worked my butt off and three exhausting and trying years later, I became a debt-free Ivy League graduate. [I said I am resilient and resourceful, right?]

Am I successful?

I have been a social worker for seven years. I have created a career where others turn to me to train and mentor new social workers, and I am invited to guest speak at a variety of professional venues and meetings.  Even so, every day I come to work feeling grateful because I can hear people’s stories and help guide them towards their best self.

I am successful because the passion which burned bright in grade school remains today. Making this choice was not smooth sailing, but I have been able to move onward and persevere.

My advice to you:

How do you want to define your success?

Have you found your passion?

Is following your passion a difficult choice because is it unpopular?

Will find happiness following your goal?

If yes, then move towards making the necessary changes to make it happen. Follow your passion, work hard at it, and success will inevitably follow.
Lastly, I live by these words: dum spiro spero [Latin translation: While I breathe, I hope.].
I bear witness to countless life stories of success, failure, and the journeys in between every single day. I benefit from the life lessons of many.
It is never too late to make a change, and while I breathe I hope because otherwise, what is the point?
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