As the daughter of two Holocaust survivors, Michelle was raised in a family where higher education was never encouraged. Her own mom hadn’t gone to college, and her dad had been put into a labor camp when he was 18 years old.
“Growing up at home was all about survival, loss, and trauma,” she says. “The message was always, ‘Don’t really aspire to do anything. Just learn how to survive. Always save for a rainy day. It’s always other people who are successful. You shouldn’t have such high hopes.’”
The expectation of women centered on becoming a wife and mother. Her parents weren’t American, she says, and they didn’t have the American mindset of individual achievement and success. Her role models were not women being self-sufficient. “The advice was always, ‘Just marry well. The man will take care of you.’” Michelle did marry, but things didn’t go as planned. She attempted to go back to school three different times at three different colleges. But a lack of support, marriage challenges, and financial burdens always got in the way.
After the birth of her second child, Michelle made the difficult decision to leave her marriage and move across the country to Seattle with her daughter and son. She worked long hours in cosmetic retail sales and always struggled financially, visiting food banks weekly, while juggling all of the responsibilities of being a single mom.
While her job was demanding, sparked inspiration, too. “Working in cosmetic sales in high end department stores sounds glamorous, However, the job can be very demanding. I enjoyed helping my customers and establishing long standing relationships, however I felt that I had more to offer. I felt like I was spinning my wheels but not getting anywhere. I wanted to do something more meaningful and make a difference in people’s lives. I craved something that demanded not only my services and creativity, but a career that would challenge me intellectually. A career that required me to learn. A career that was in demand. I always found it fascinating to hear customers share their stories of how they reinvented themselves later in their life. This fueled my desire to pursue a different path and discover my own potential,” she says.
Michelle held the perspective that she was in the child rearing phase of life—and it was temporary. “Meeting all of those amazing women inspired me to keep trekking. I knew at some point it was going to be about me, that I would get my chance. My time was coming.”
At age 51, Michelle’s time finally arrived. She entered a worker retraining program and was drawn into the field of Occupational Therapy Assisting. After completing a year of prerequisites, she was accepted into a selective program at Lake Washington Institute of Technology and she applied for a WWIN scholarship.
“In the winter quarter I got a congrats email from WWIN. I was that person who had never won anything. I was blown away, incredibly humbled and so very thankful,” she says.
When COVID-19 hit, Michelle did her best to adapt. She says, “I was getting into a groove. I’d wake up and go walking. I was eating really well, and I thought, “I can do this, I can do school online.’” But before long, tech issues left her unable to attend her online classes. Her laptop was too sluggish for Zoom calls. She reached out to WWIN and they were quick to help her get up and running with a new laptop. “I told them what I needed, and just like that it was done.”
As Michelle was working through her OTA program, her daughter became the first in the family to graduate from college—at the same time that her son graduated from high school. Sadly, there was no ceremony for either of them due to COVID-19.
As the pandemic wears on and campus remains closed, Michelle feels nostalgic for her former routine. “I was always so proud to put my backpack on and go to school. Every time I’d walk into school, I felt so grateful and privileged,” she says. She used to make the rounds, studying at the library until closing, then at a cafe until that closed, and finally at a late-night pizza joint. “I miss the library vibe, the ergonomically correct desks and chairs, the lighting, and the quiet environment. Although it was challenging to recreate the right ambiance at home, I eventually established my routine and made adjustments to make it work.“
Still, she’s taking it in stride. “I feel very honored and blessed and grateful for the people at WWIN. “I couldn’t have done it without them. What an incredible support system they have been! It’s so important to me to get good grades, and maintain the mindset of succeeding on this journey of furthering my education. With privilege comes responsibility. I have been given a great opportunity, and this time I will persevere no matter what it takes.”
Michelle thinks back to her daydreams at the cosmetics counter, and she knows that this is the time she had been waiting for. “There’s nothing in my way now. Even COVID-19 can’t stop me.”