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By Elizabeth Exline
Look at Emely Arienza today, and you’d be forgiven for doubting she’s ever known what it's like to worry about how to pay for dinner. She balances an understated elegance with a quiet competence, whether at work as a program manager with Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield or during a casual conversation. This is a woman who, by all appearances, has her life together.
And she does. But that’s not to say it was easy. Like many University of Phoenix (UOPX) alumni, Arienza had to chart her own course to success, and it was one paved with challenges.
Arienza was born in the Philippines and raised in San Francisco, one of nine siblings and the self-described black sheep. She married her high school sweetheart as soon as she graduated from high school, and it wasn’t long before the couple became a family of five.
In many ways, Arienza could be described as having gotten a jump start in life. (Not yet 60, she already has two grandchildren.) But taking the fast-track to family life made it tougher to go to college. She tried to attend night school after the birth of her first son, but between motherhood and full-time work at a hospital, it was too much.
By 2005 and after a stint in Southern California, Arienza and her family settled in Sacramento. Arienza was working in customer service for Anthem Blue Cross, then was promoted to network management consultant. It was a step up, but it wasn’t the end of the line.
In 2013, everything changed. Arienza and her husband went through was she describes as a devastating divorce. She lost her house in the process, but she didn’t lose hope.
“I realized I needed to accomplish what I always wanted to do, which was finish college,” Arienza says.
In addition to enrolling at UOPX, Arienza changed jobs, taking a position as a market specialist for another company. The role was challenging, especially as it involved a lot of travel.
“I’d be up all night in the hotel [working on school], knowing that I’d have to wake up early in the morning and do presentations for work,” Arienza recalls.
She was short on both time and money. She had to juggle raising three children as a single parent working full time and going to school. It was a formula that didn’t always feel like it would pan out.
Further hardship came in 2015 when she was laid off. “My kids didn’t realize that, when we went out to eat, I’d be sweating because I was like, ‘Will the credit card get denied?’” Arienza says. “[Remembering] those moments makes me tear up. I couldn’t really splurge for my children.”
She returned to Anthem Blue Cross in 2016, this time as a senior provider relations consultant. Her children were older, but Arienza would have to share the car with her oldest child, which made attending class on campus an exercise in scheduling and luck. Sometimes, she says, the car wouldn’t start, and she would turn to a classmate for a ride.
But Arienza’s drive to finish her degree prevailed over money, time and even the inevitable mom guilt that trails all working mothers. She completed her Bachelor of Science in Health Administration (BSHA) in 2016.
Arienza had the degree but she was by no means done with her career or her education. Or, for that matter, her challenges.
When reflecting on her academic journey, Arienza says in her customarily quiet way that it was personal gratification that motivated her the most. Part of that stemmed from wanting to be a role model for her children. (And it worked — her daughter earned the same undergraduate degree as Arienza although from a different university.)
Mostly, however, Arienza worked hard to advance her education because she felt she owed it to herself and her abilities. No wonder that her bachelor’s degree was just the beginning of her postsecondary education.
“I realized that should not be my limit,” Arienza says. “I knew I could do more.”
She still had her eye on the role of program manager, and it was a position for which having a master’s degree would make her more competitive.
So, Arienza enrolled at University of Phoenix again, this time in the online Master of Health Administration program.
Some alumni talk about going to school like it’s an itch that has to be scratched. They can’t get enough. Arienza views it somewhat differently. It was necessary, and it was rewarding, but it was also demanding. It was a struggle, she says, to get back into the student mindset.
Then tragedy struck in 2018 when Arienza’s ex-husband suddenly passed away. Although they had separated, he continued to support Arienza, from offering encouragement to doing more practical things like taking care of the kids when she needed to attend to her schoolwork.
Even today, Arienza has a hard time talking about his passing. Yet, she persevered, walking at her graduation and taking ownership of her new home in the same weekend.
“I got my keys, and I got my diploma,” Arienza says. “That was probably the greatest highlight.”
Today, Arienza works as a program manager at Anthem Blue Cross. It is a role that is both complex and rewarding as she serves as a liaison between Anthem and the county health and human services agency and county behavioral health departments. She also supports other local partners while addressing health disparities and the social determinants of health.
The work taps into her longtime drive to help others. “What’s rewarding is [giving] back to the community in terms of helping those who are in dire need,” she says.
Anthem has also given back to Arienza. In addition to offering flexibility while she attended school and a pathway toward professional success, Anthem reimbursed part of her tuition.
That emotional and financial support formed one piece of the network that empowered Arienza to complete two degrees at UOPX and to find the sort of success that can’t be measured by a diploma or a paycheck.
As she looks toward her future, Arienza sees family. A few years after completing her degrees, Arienza was able to take everyone to Hawaii. That milestone speaks to what Arienza values most: her children, her grandchildren and her community.
“When I said, ‘OK, that’s it. I give up. I can’t finish. I’ve got financial issues. I’ve got ride issues. I just can’t make it work,’ that’s when I’d have angels there to pick me up,” Arienza recalls of her road to education. Nowadays, she’s that angel for others.
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