Maria del Carmen Gonzalez - Woman with dark hair wears cap and gown with yellow scarf

Sometimes the only way to convince yourself you must do something is to have someone insist you can’t.

Maria del Carmen Gonzalez had dreams of going back to college. Her husband told her to forget them. He insisted her place was at home, with him and their three children. When she persisted, he grew even angrier.

“But I knew I needed to be financially independent,” Gonzalez says. “And for that I knew I needed to finish my degree.”

She went back to school despite him, and got her bachelor’s in business administration from California State Polytechnic University in Pomona. Later she went to California State University in Fullerton for her master’s in counselling.

Maria del Carmen
Maria del Carmen.

She ended up impressing her professors enough to not only win the UPCEA 2019 West Region Outstanding Student Award, but also the UPCEA Outstanding Professional, Continuing, and/or Online Education Student: Credit Award for 2020.

“Everyone who reads Carmen’s story is touched and inspired by her strength and courage,” says Gail Wright, Manager, Self-Support Degree Programs, Extension and International Programs at Cal-State Fullerton. “She achieved her goal of obtaining a master’s degree in counseling even though she had to overcome challenges and tragedy along the way.”

But that’s not all she’s achieved.

Gonzalez is out of that abusive marriage now, single and self-supporting and living in Hacienda Heights. She’s enjoying spending time with her two grown sons and working for Maryvale, Los Angeles County’s longest-operating children’s charity. She’s racking up the hours she needs to become a licensed marital and family therapist. She’s even thinking about a PhD.

And if her new life seems full of possibilities, it’s because she once stood up to someone who told her it was impossible.

 

Escape Through Education

Gonzalez, 53, says a college degree had always been in her plans.  “I’m first-generation American, and my parents were both always very supportive of their children getting an education,” she says. “I’m one of five siblings, and we all have college degrees.”

But before Gonzalez got her bachelor’s, things got in the way.

“I got married,” she says. “I had kids. Life happened.”

It sounds like the kind of domestic detour many students take before finally returning to their studies. But Gonzalez’ time away from school wasn’t a momentary break. It was a serious setback, a sentence to a painful, private prison.

“There was a lot of emotional abuse, physical abuse, in the marriage,” she says. “Finishing my degree, for a long time, I couldn’t even focus on that dream. It just didn’t seem possible. What pushed me forward, eventually, was knowing I was going to have to leave him. I needed that degree.”

And so, more than a decade after she’d left college, Gonzalez returned.

Once her husband suspected she was readying an exit plan, his rage grew. There was serious abuse, she says. Lethal threats.

“Finally I said to him, ‘If you’re going to kill me, kill me,’” Gonzalez remembers. “`I can’t stop you. No court order can stop you. If you’re going to do it, do it. If you’re not, leave me alone, because I am so done with this.’ And that’s what ended it, finally. My standing up to him.”

Separated from her husband, she found support from her family, and her church. She thrived.

Then her daughter, Ceci, died in a car crash. She was only 21.

“I would drive to school, and I would be crying the whole way there,” Gonzalez remembers. “I would drive back, and I would be crying the whole way home. It was the greatest pain in my life. I wondered how I was going to go on.”

Once again, education provided a lifeline.

Carmen's daughter, Ceci.
Carmen’s daughter, Ceci.
Carmen's daughter, Ceci, on her graduation day.
Carmen’s daughter, Ceci, on her graduation day.

“Entering the master’s program at Fullerton, I thought, this is going to be the most expensive therapy you can do,” she says. “But I knew, this is going to help me channel my pain into something positive. And all of this — the degree, the awards, the work — has been my way of honoring my daughter.”

“Our extension and international degree programs are designed for adult learners like Carmen,” says Wright. “The curriculum is scheduled part-time on evenings and weeknights, which allows students to complete academic studies while maintaining family and work commitments.”

 

Looking to the Future

Despite all she’s already overcome, Gonzalez’ life is still far from easy.

“I’m still struggling a little,” she admits. “You need to put in 3,000 hours of work to become a licensed marital and family therapist; I’m working towards that, but it will probably take me another year. After that there’s a law and ethics test, and a licensing test. My goal is to work at a college, and have my own private practice.”

But Gonzalez still hasn’t stopped dreaming. She hopes to own her own house soon. And, perhaps, return to school once more, for her doctorate.

And she also hopes her story inspires others.

“Never give up on your dreams,” she urges. “I know it’s not easy. When I went back for my master’s, I was the oldest by far in my classes. It was intimidating. But I don’t know, maybe being older, I had a bigger commitment to succeed. I know I found wonderful professors there, great mentors. And now I have a group of women friends who are really supportive.”

She occasionally runs into her ex. Since she’s moved on, and he’s remarried, the insults and intimidation have stopped, although the memories remain.

Carmen and her sons.
Carmen and her sons.

“And I almost want to tell him thank you,” she says. “Not that I wanted to go through what I did, or be put through what he put me through. But if I hadn’t gone through it, I wouldn’t have my master’s right now. I wouldn’t be the person I am today.”

 

Stephen Whitty is an award-winning writer who has covered topics ranging from movies to medicine, and has lectured at New York University, Montclair State University, and Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, and is currently an adjunct at Kean University. He is a two-time former chair of the New York Film Critics Circle and his work has appeared in publications around the world. His most recent book is “The Alfred Hitchcock Encyclopedia.”