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Committed: to being a role model

Cristina Gudiel likes to keep things real. You can see it in the way she carries herself, making eye contact and speaking plainly. You can hear it in the way she tells stories. (When recounting how her grandmother has acquired multiple houses in California, she quotes the matriarch as saying, “Because I didn’t buy Starbucks coffee for $4.”) And you can feel it in the way no topic or anecdote is off limits.

Gudiel’s open authenticity stems from both a happy childhood and her ambition to achieve the American dream. Her father came from Mexico and worked in the agricultural fields of Salinas, California before building a career as an electrician. Her mother also emigrated from Mexico. She stayed home while Gudiel and her siblings were young but then found work once they grew up.

Hard work, in other words, has been the bedrock of her family’s existence in Southern California. Gudiel watched as her parents sacrificed and clocked in day after day so she could attend private school as a child. When she started and then stopped attending college, Gudiel followed her family’s example and worked while raising her three children and two stepchildren.

But work will only get you so far. As Gudiel discovered some 25 years after graduating high school, achieving the American dream also requires agility, innovation and sometimes education.

What’s more: For every person who makes good on her potential, there are many more who are watching. And it’s for those eyes — of her children and her peers — that Gudiel pushed herself across the finish line to earn both her Bachelor of Business Management and her Master of Business Administration.

Here's how she became a role model who’s inspired her children and friends to achieve their own educational dreams.

You had a few false starts while earning your bachelor’s degree. How did you finally decide to go for it?

My mom was telling me the story of how she and my dad were going to get separated when I was young. She said, “You guys were going to go with me to Mexico, and your dad said, ‘What are you doing? What kind of a future do our kids have over there? We struggle to pay for these private schools for them to graduate college.’ We got back together because of that, and then you didn’t graduate college!”

Then my son told me the next day, “Mom, you make so much money, you don’t even need a bachelor’s degree.” But the last recession, I got let go from my job. We lost our house because I didn’t have the titles. I had to start from the bottom and move up because I didn’t have those degrees. So, I just logged on and said, “I don’t care what it costs. I’m going to do it.”

When I walked the stage at graduation, my children were so proud. 

What role models did you have growing up?

My dad went to Cal State and completed an electrical program. He always told us, “I’m not asking you guys to be astronauts or lawyers or doctors. I just want you to be the best at whatever you want to be. And you need to be at a job where you’re happy. So, I don’t care if you’re a dishwasher. You’re the best dishwasher in that company.”

That always stuck with me. It’s why, whatever job I was working, I was the best. And that’s why I moved up.

Then my mom always said, “You gotta make your own money, because if anything doesn’t work out, you have to make your own money.”

My dad’s brother was also always going to school. It took him 10 years to graduate at Cal State Long Beach. He wasn’t even born here, and he did it.  And my grandpa, he worked so hard in those fields. He only went to second grade, but he kept pushing and pushing.

Then the support of my husband was amazing. I’d be like, “Yeah, quesadillas and whatever that man can make is what’s for dinner.” He was really supportive and just like, “I got this. Don’t worry.”

So, I had really strong, working people all around me.

What makes you the best in whatever role you take on?

Staying humble, knowing where you come from and never letting any job go to your head. Treating people with respect. And I think education is also so important. If I knew everything I know now after going through my bachelor’s and master’s programs, I would’ve been such a better manager than I was. 

You walk the line between very different worlds. On one hand, you’re a college-educated American citizen. On the other, your family are recent immigrants who achieved the American dream. What advantages does this position offer you?

I’m so fortunate to see the difference between my family who stayed in Mexico and my own children. It guides me to where I want to help the next employee or even the next student. I had students in my classes who were immigrants. It’s like, “You know what? Let me help you a little bit more. Let me help you with your tutor.” I want everybody to keep climbing up.

What do you want people to know about the possibilities education offers?

That it’s attainable. It was really hard — some of the homework was excruciating — but you also have so much support from the ground up at University of Phoenix. Don’t be afraid to do it; just do it.

Your dad once insisted that you be the best at whatever you did. What does he say now?

That he’s so proud of me. That I’m an amazing woman.

That’s hard to hear from Mexican parents. My mom especially. She would never say, “OK, good job.” She’d always say, “OK, keep going.”

Then I graduated, and she just hugged me so hard and said, “I’m so proud of you. What a great example for your kids. And thank you. Thank you for making our American dream worth it.”

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