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Maribel Duran ’16: From the South Side of Chicago to the White House

Maribel Duran and her son with President Obama and Vice President Biden

When Maribel Duran '16 crossed the stage at the SNHU Arena, graduating magna cum laude this past May, it was a journey 17 years in the making. Her quest to finally finish her bachelor's degree is just one part of her story - and without the other critical components, it would minimize the magnitude of her determination and success.

The daughter of Mexican immigrants, both of whom were never able to move beyond elementary and middle school, Duran and her sisters were encouraged to work hard and to earn degrees after high school. A bright student from Little Village on the south side of Chicago, with tremendous possibility, the path to college seemed a sure one - at least until Duran learned she was pregnant shortly after graduating from high school. Disheartened, she was most upset about disappointing her parents but dedicated to being the best mother she could be.

With the support of her family, Duran juggled a full-time job, attending college at night and caring for her son in between, along with countless other responsibilities. She kept up this whirlwind pace for a year, forfeiting sleep and continuously pushing forward before reconciling herself to the reality that it was all just too much to continue. College was put aside.

From Chicago to D.C.

Working for the Chicago school district, the third largest in the country, Duran looked for mentors, asked advice and tried to emulate the behaviors she admired. Beginning initially as an administrative associate, in 1998, she would grow her role tremendously, eventually becoming the executive assistant to the CEO of Chicago Public Schools, Arne Duncan. When Duncan was tapped by the Obama administration to serve as the U.S. Secretary of Education, he invited her to come to Washington, D.C., to work as a special assistant in the Office of the Secretary. It was an opportunity she couldn't pass up, although it did mean leaving the support of her family behind.

In 2013, Duran progressed to the role of chief of staff for the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics. Duran said she "advised the Secretary of Education and senior leadership on education issues impacting the nation's Latino community, providing strategies and promising practices for outreach and engagement, policy and programmatic efforts to advance the Hispanic educational attainment."

In mid-2016, she was appointed as the chief of staff of the U.S. Department of Education Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, serving as a senior advisor to the acting assistant secretary of education. "It's an incredible opportunity to encourage and support education," Duran said.

She speaks to the benefit of her education experience, as it allows her to communicate an honest message about the power of education and why completing her degree was so important. As she talks to groups across the country, Duran is quick to share her story - that of a single mother of two, who had been to three other universities before enrolling in an online program at Southern New Hampshire University - and how she managed to navigate her way to success. "It made me more relatable," she said. "Being a single mom and working is a challenge. You have to discipline yourself."

Finally, Her Degree

For Duran, her bachelor's degree is a validation of what she's been through and what she's learned along the way. She speaks to others about "what a wonderful investment education is" and particularly within the Latino population, how valuable it is "to see someone that looked like them."

Although Duran was doing well in her career, one day she had coffee with a dear friend in the U.S. Department of Education, who told her: "Pay attention to SNHU. They are really being innovative." That same person told her that in spite of her experience and what she was able to accomplish, she needed to go back to school. She decided to look into what SNHU had to offer.

It was the personal attention given to her by an admission team member that led her to actually enroll. As a young girl, Duran wanted to be a writer, and somehow along the way, her dream got lost. The admission counselor encouraged her to consider what degree would be most meaningful for her, as it would be what would draw her to the schoolwork, even on days when her life was challenging. "I wanted to be a better communicator. It was important to me, and I wanted the tools to be a better writer." Together they landed on the online BA in English Language and Literature.

Finding Her Words

SNHU was Duran's fourth college experience, but the difference this time around was the dedicated interest in her, from the start, and the support she felt throughout. "I had some difficult patches during this period personally, " she said. "The professors and advisors advocated for me; it's an incredible support system. When you have the support, you can accomplish incredible things."

At the time, her son was a young teen and her daughter just 2 years old. Even with the new responsibilities related to schoolwork, the family adhered to a routine schedule throughout her three years online with SNHU. "We never missed dinner together," said Duran. "We sat around the kitchen table, shared our day and then we'd start the bedtime routine."

She'd pull out her laptop and books, and her daughter often took out her toy laptop and books, emulating her mom. "My daughter says she wants to grow up to be like me," said Duran. On the busier days, her son often made dinner and helped with his sister so his mother could study. While her family - and everyone at SNHU - offered tremendous support, Duran also had "an incredible mentor who saw my potential" too.

But there was more. Unknown to many, even her parents, Duran had been embroiled in a relationship of domestic abuse. Between the value she felt professionally and her courses with SNHU, she began to realize another benefit of her education: "The hardships I went through for many years - I saw them for what they were, finally," she said. "I realized that all this education was liberating. I found hope and courage to stand up and get out of that situation."

Duran said she became a different person, overcoming the shadow of the box she had been put in. "I recognized the power of words, which was a pivotal moment," she said. "I think the domestic violence had something to do with it - I was muted when I started, at a loss for words."

She gained the tools to finally be able to tell her story and articulate what she was feeling.

"I struggled to see the light at the end of the tunnel," she said. "It's taken me a while. I'm grateful, and now there's another community of people to advocate for."

The Power of Education

Duran has seen the power of education within her family, beginning with her "two amazing sisters." Her older sister has her bachelor's degree and her younger, her associate degree. Their mother, "an avid learner, who loves people, loves learning - I felt I had taken the baton from my mom and did what she couldn't," said Duran. She can't put into words the look on her mother's face when she completed her degree. "She was so proud."

Although her parents were not able to attend SNHU's Commencement in May, Duran's children and some of her friends did. Beyond graduation, she was thrilled to have an opportunity to meet personally with SNHU President Paul LeBlanc. "He was genuinely interested in my journey," she said.

Little did she know that another emotional personal meeting with a president was soon to take place.

After her return to D.C., Duran received a phone call while at work, ready to go into a meeting. The caller said President Barack Obama would like to see her in the Oval Office to personally thank her for her service over the past eight years. Stunned, she quickly put the information aside to focus on the remainder of her day. It was on the drive home that night when the news hit her.

In a recent TEDx talk, Duran describes the scene: "Later that day, as I drove home, I was overcome with emotion. The Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial in my rear-view mirror absolutely did not help."

She sobbed through the entire 40-minute ride home, marveling at how the daughter of Mexican immigrants, a former teen mom from the south side of Chicago, with a 17-year journey to a college degree, a single mother who still deals with the aftermath of an abusive relationship, would somehow be invited to the Oval Office by the President of the United States. It seemed incomprehensible to her - yet it happened.

When Duran met with Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, she brought her 16-year-old son with her. "I wanted him to see that with hard work and education, anything is possible," she said. "Perhaps one day he will be invited to the Oval Office or even become president."

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