UNMASKING: Melody Zuniga
Thanks to Scholarships, Hard Work and an Unsinkable Spirit, Mom Can Say:
Written by Toni Salama
"I'm About to be a Scientist!"
You know you are doing something right when your teenage daughter says, "Hey, you're cool, Mom."
"Mom" is Melody Zuniga, a Geosciences senior concentrating in Geology. At 39, this mother of three who never finished high school can say, "I'm about to get a college degree. I'm about to be a scientist!"
Her story wasn't always so exciting. She began working at the tender age of 8, hoeing cotton on the broad West Texas plains. "When you grew up on a farm, back then, that's just what you did," Zuniga said. "If you didn't work, you didn't have school clothes, you didn't have what you needed."
Years later, when she met and married her husband, she left her high school studies to become a wife and mother. Until her youngest child came along, that was enough. Daughter Kamryn's birth 16 years ago started Zuniga thinking of a broader future for herself. "I decided I needed to do something," Zuniga remembered. "I said, 'I probably can't even work at Walmart without something.' So I went ahead and got my GED."
Zuniga's story might have ended there, if not for the happy convergence of scholarship donors, Arts & Sciences faculty, and the local chapter of The American Association of University Women (AAUW).
"Growing up in poverty you don't ever think about going to college, you think about how am I going to put food on the table, how am I going to pay rent," Zuniga said.
Callum Hetherington, Associate Professor in the Department of Geosciences and one of Zuniga's professors, said that for many people who are older than the traditional college-entry age (commonly called non-traditional students), there's an invisible barrier that keeps them from walking onto campus. The same holds true, Hetherington found, for minorities who are in the traditional age bracket. Hetherington wrote a grant proposal last year to study that perceived barrier.
"We investigated some of these perceptions and whether they are true." Hetherington said. "The surveys that we've held with students of these demographics, they say, "Yeah, I don't feel I belong. I don't feel I'm going to get in.' And that probably restricts them from even attempting to get in because nobody likes to be rejected. So nobody wants to go to the effort of making the application to then discover it wasn't worth it."
Enter the AAUW.
When daughter Kamryn was in the sixth grade, she was asked to join the Mother-Daughter Program conducted by the AAUW Lubbock Betty Anderson Branch in cooperation with the Lubbock Independent School District and Texas Tech University. The program identifies sixth-grade girls who would be the first generation in their families to go to college. Mothers are an integral part of the program and participate alongside their daughters in exploring career options, doing volunteer work, and touring the TTU campus. During a girl's first two years in the Mother-Daughter Program, she and her mother will attend five or six Saturday sessions at Texas Tech, where they will be introduced to college life, meet female faculty and students, and participate hands-on in labs and classroom activities across many academic disciplines.
"We came once a month to Texas Tech to the different departments, and we were able to see all the opportunities that were there for Kamryn," Zuniga said. "So not only did they show her what she would like to do, but they also showed me as a mother what I can do to prepare her, not only emotionally but also financially, to get into college."
So who enrolled first? Mom. "When we went to the Geosciences department, I fell in love with the program. I was able to do some mineral-identification exercises with my daughter, and I had so much fun I was giggling like a little girl," Zuniga said. "And I thought, I can do this. I love this."
During the question-and-answer session for mothers, Zuniga asked so many questions that AAUW members Melanie Barnes, Senior Research Associate in the Department of Geosciences, and Carol Korzeniewski, Professor in the Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry, took notice.
"They picked up on that. So they took it upon themselves to make sure that I got where I wanted to be. They made appointments. They showed me what I needed to do," Zuniga said. "That was in February. In fall, I was enrolled, and I was on my way to getting my bachelor's in Geosciences."
Suddenly, a new door was opening for her, but would it stay open for a woman without a high-school diploma?
"I was worried that Tech would not accept me with my GED, but they did. And I'm so grateful for that because that shows that they're not just looking at a specific group of people," Zuniga said. She put aside fears of inadequacy and of the challenges she would face as a wife/working mother/full-time college student. She seized the opportunity.
Getting into Tech was one thing. Staying in Tech was another.
Every year that Zuniga has been enrolled in Texas Tech she has received a scholarship. "Without those scholarships, I would be in deep, deep debt. Or, I may not be in college at all," Zuniga said, adding that many of her fellow students have run up a hefty tab in tuition loans. "I've been shocked to hear some say that they are over $90,000 in debt. And I'm about to fall over just hearing what their amount is," Zuniga said. "And I'm nowhere near that, nowhere near that, because of my scholarships."
Hetherington said that there's no escaping the financial realities of college, and that the obvious first benefit of a scholarship is the lessening of that financial burden. "Every dollar that somebody receives that they don't have to borrow or don't have to earn enables them to give back a few extra minutes, an extra hour, an extra day, to being more successful in the academic classroom," he said.
For Zuniga, scholarships have relieved more than the financial burden. The funds go a long way in easing emotional tension, too. "To be a mother, to be a full-time student, to be employed, all that costs more than sometimes we're able to give," she said. Knowing that someone believed in her future enough to help in a tangible way has been a wellspring of encouragement for Zuniga.
Hetherington said the second benefit of a scholarship is that it rewards academic success. "It's making people feel that they belong, that they are good enough," he said. "If they are awarded a scholarship for merit, it really helps them gain the confidence, the internal knowledge that they do belong here. That they are doing well, that they are being successful, and they are being recognized."
"With the generosity of donors, we are able to move forward without feeling like we're stuck in the mud or that we are even sinking, which is what we feel a lot of times," Zuniga said. "But with that financial help from a donor, we're able to pull ourselves up and continue on. It may be hard, but it's the hand that we need to pull ourselves out."
Zuniga's hope is that her story will be an encouragement to others, starting with her own family. "I've been trying to inspire my children because I want them to see that anything worth having is hard work, but it's worth going through all of that to have what you want. And my kids have seen me struggle. They've seen me go without sleep, like now. They've seen me where I had to get up early, go to work, go to class, go back to work, then stay up all night doing homework, then get up the next day and do it all over again. So, they've seen me do that. And it is my hope that it has inspired them to do something better for themselves."
Hetherington noted that, although his department has other non-traditional students, it's likely that few to none have the spectrum of responsibilities that Zuniga juggles. "Many of them work, but they don't work in positions of the type of responsibilities that Melody has ... where there's a much more significant time-management challenge to be where you've got to be at all these certain times," Hetherington said. "So yes, by comparison, all of these things that she handles, it's a real mark of respect."
Despite the rigorous schedule, Zuniga is grateful that when she gets up in the morning she is privileged to attend classes and labs. "I know a lot of people are like, 'I don't want to go to class today.' And I'm like, 'I get to go to class today.' I'm excited to be able to learn something new." Next semester, one of those classes will require research in the field with lots of hiking and camping. "I'm an outdoorsy person so this field, geology, it's right up my alley."
Discovering what she wanted, going after it, and not letting fears or setbacks sidetrack her goals are qualities that have made Zuniga successful, Hetherington said. "That combination of spirit, that combination of tenacity, have really, really served her well." And she takes an interest in others. "She's built a community around herself. She cares for others. Others care for her. She has people that she can speak to, she has students and colleagues that she can draw on," Hetherington said. "She can work with them, she can learn from them, and she helps them learn themselves. And through constructing this framework, for want of a better word, she's put herself in a position to be successful."
She and daughter Kamryn, now a junior at Coronado High School, have become committee members and volunteers at AAUW, helping others in the same way they once were helped, bringing full circle the hope of a brighter future.
With graduation in sight—August 2017—Zuniga is starting to look beyond to the career that, just a few years ago, she never dared dream of. Zuniga sees herself seeking a career in her academic field, preferably in a geographic location that has lots of water and tall trees, she said. Hetherington would like to see her recruit future students: "I think one of the things that Melody could do for us is to go into communities, to take us into communities and say, 'I work with these people every day, and I love it.'"
She could help them cross that invisible barrier, help them belong, have confidence in them and give them increased confidence that they will be successful, he said. "That's something that I would love to be able to give to every student, but I recognize that others are going to be better at it than I am," Hetherington said. "And Melody's one of them."