Being My Own Best Friend

The past month and a half has been a real test of friendship. I’m adjusting to a new community, a new working environment with a new schedule, new people, etc. On top of that, I’m looking for a summer internship. All in all, I’m crunched for time. (and that is why I have not posted for several weeks!) Sometimes, I’m admittedly irritable. So I haven’t always been kind to myself.

leslie knopeLast night after driving for hours, I got home at nearly 10 p.m. utterly exhausted–like, barely able to walk up the stairs with my eyes open! Still, I was telling myself that I should stay up for an hour or two and do a little work before bed. I’ve been saying and doing things like this for weeks, and I realized that it’s time for me to be my own best friend. “Being my own best friend” is how I remind myself to be kind myself and to take my own advice. It has gotten me through a lot of self-loathing, unhealthy habits, and bad relationships.

The first idea is that if I wouldn’t say something to my best friend, then I’m not going to say it to myself. I would never tell my best friend that she needs to work harder when she’s already working really hard. I would want her to feel free to let things go if they weren’t contributing to her goals or making her happy. I wouldn’t say that she’s failing as a mother because she’s focusing too much on work. I would never tell her she’s not good enough or that she doesn’t belong. I wouldn’t tell her to try to be more likable, or to try to impress people whose opinions don’t matter. I would be honest with my best friend, but I wouldn’t be unkind.

The harder part of being my own best friend is taking my own advice. I think we all know what it’s like to stand by while a friend makes their own life more difficult–maybe they’re drinking too much or returning to a bad relationship, staying in a miserable job, or allowing someone to take advantage of them. We want shake them, look them in the eye, and plead with them, “why are you doing this?!” Sometimes we have to recognize when we are that friend, and we don’t need to wait for someone else to give us permission to stop.

There are periods of high stress in our lives, periods of adjustment and irritability. And those are usually the times when we need a little kindness and a good friend.

11 Habits You Have to Put Up With if You Date Me

If you’ve been voraciously googling me because you need to uncover all of the intimate details of my life before you date me, and you weren’t satisfied with this infographic about me, then I wrote this post for you. Here’s a glimpse of what you may actually be getting yourself into.

job interview scene from the office

I am fiercely independent. I do lots of things entirely on my own. I’m generally not afraid to complete my own household repairs, and I can at least give the appearance of “having it all together” because I have life insurance and make my own dentist appointments. I get that that can be intimidating for some reason, but just because I can function on my own, that doesn’t mean that I don’t want or need you. (Awww.)

My hair is everywhere. I was blessed with thick gorgeous hair that I’m currently wearing at a medium length. Be fair warned, my hair is literally everywhere in every room in my home, on every surface, and in every drain. If you date me, you should expect to find strands of my hair on your clothing, and on every surface in your home too. Probably even in your gym bag and in other places I’ve never even been. It will keep you honest.

I listen to audiobooks more than I listen to music. I know basically nothing about music outside of punky-poppy early 2000’s boy bands. I sometimes go through periods of time when I listen only to instrumental music or no music at all. I also like some indie-folky stuff. See? I lack even the basic language to discuss music genres. I’ll listen to your mixtape. I may even make a mixtape for you. But that’s the best I’ve got.

photo of wreck it ralph movie
I will cry every single time I watch Wreck-It-Ralph and any other movie that’s sad or happy or happy-sad. I can’t help it.

Sometimes I’m emotional. I cry when I’m sad and happy and happy-sad. I also cry when I’m super pissed off. You’re just going to have to weather the storm. I’m sometimes overcome by waves of hormonal emotion around the time that I would normally get my period, but also I’m sometimes it has nothing to do with that. And for crying out loud, do not ask. Just wait it out, or start making your way through this list of 101 things that make me happy.

I celebrate non-conventional holidays. I make a huge deal about birthday month, half-birthdays, and Pi Day. I prefer to spend Thanksgiving watching tv and eating Chinese food. I can say with confidence that I do not want roses on Valentine’s Day (really, I don’t). I’m not crazy about #worldemojiday or #nationaltalklikeapirateday but I do look for reasons to celebrate.

I insist on paying about half of the time. I’m writing this about three weeks before I become a broke college student again, so who knows what the future holds. Probably less expensive dates. I pay about half the time, because I expect to have a pretty egalitarian relationship with the person I’m dating. That means I’ll also cook and clean about half the time.

I’m a picky eater. I do *try* to be more adventurous, but it’s a work in progress. I don’t like seafood, mushrooms or olives. I eat meat sometimes, and I could pretty much live off of tacos, burgers, and breakfast foods. I like most fruits and veggies. I only tell you this because you’ll be cooking about half the time. 😉

I fall asleep during movies. If you ever get to a part of movie that’s especially happy or sad and I’m not crying, that’s probably because I’ve fallen asleep. I’ll fall asleep in the middle of the day if the movie is long or just not that interesting. Taking me to a late show is also a risk. If you’re a fan of Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, or other movies that are like six hours long, then you should be content to watch while I sleep soundly beside you–I won’t even making it through the opening credits.

Parks and Rec Andy asks April out
I’m really smooth when I ask guys out.

Sometimes I make the first move. I recently read Aziz Ansari’s book Modern Romance, and I learned that, at the time of writing, only 12% of women had asked someone on a date in the past year. Why is that? I’ve been asked out by a fair number of men that I was not interested in dating. I’ve also asked out men who were not interested in dating me. And I lived through the rejection–not sure what the big deal is. I don’t think they were disinterested because I denied them the opportunity to chase after me. If so, then I probably didn’t want to date that person anyway. So sometimes I make the first move. Sometimes I don’t.

I love children. I have a very strong bond with my almost-nine-year-old daughter, and I am continually amazed by her boldness, her kindness, and her humor. I don’t love all parts of being a mother all the time, but I can definitively say that I do love children. You’ll have to put up with me striking up a conversation with a five-year-old at a restaurant sometimes, and getting high-fives from preschoolers at the store (this has happened to me in real life. I’m very approachable, apparently).

I also love work. I am ambitious and my brain is always going 100% of the time no matter what. My work challenges me, and I love doing it. I used to think that I could either love children or work, not both, but that’s not true. I’m a better mother, a better friend, and a better partner when I’m fulfilled in all areas of my life, including my career. It’s pretty unlikely that I would choose to be a stay-at-home-mother, and if I add children to my family in the future, I’ll want a partner who will share the work and the joy of having a family. And quite frankly, I think my partner should want that too, and not just put up with it.

So there you have it. Those are all the things you’d have to put up with if you dated me. Oh also, I quote The Office and Parks & Rec incessantly and I play Mario too often, but that’s all, I swear. That’s not all. But just wait until you hear about my strengths.

Going Places: Seattle Solo Trip

I vowed to spend more time doing and less time preparing this year, and with that mindset, I’ve done more traveling and living in the moment. In late June, I decided to take a trip to Seattle on my own. I wanted to visit a city I’d never been to, and I wanted to do something for myself. More than that, though, I wanted to be alone with myself–to make time for self-reflection and to things that make me happy, and I was surprised at the healing and inspiration I found within. I kept this trip to myself (and just a couple of close friends), I stayed off of social media–for the most part–until after I was home. It was important to minimize the noise.

"Our only surgeon died in childbirth" poster

I traveled to Seattle with no real agenda. I was not particularly irritated when my flight was delayed. I had some idea of places I wanted to visit, but if I didn’t make it to some, that was okay. I could come back.On Saturday, I woke up on my own time, and had coffee a neighborhood cafe (there are a thousand million of those, as you might imagine). I set out for the Space Needle and Chihuly Garden, and, on a whim, I stopped at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Visitor Center. I was moved by the exhibit “Women Hold Up Half the Sky,” and I was reminded that I have so so much to be grateful for.

I marveled at the creativity of the Chihuly Garden and Glass, taking time in each space to just be. I ventured to the top of the Space Needle, offering to snap photos of strangers on family vacations. The minimal exchanges of “Would you please..?” “of course” and “thank you” were the only conversations I’d had in more than a day. I felt so far removed the city, from my home, work, school, family, friends, but somehow still a part of something so alive. The weather was gorgeous, and for that I was grateful.

It’s a funny thing to be alone and surrounded by so many people. I took the city bus to Pike Place Market to eat and browse and visit the waterfront. I stumbled across the gum wall–I think if there was a word that meant “pretty” and “gross” at the same time, the gum wall would exemplify it. I did not add gum or touch the wall in any way. After wandering for a couple of hours, I concluded the day at a local bar where I ate a watermelon salad and drank a little too much, but that was okay.

biscuit and latte from Morsel

If I thought my first day in Seattle was without an agenda, that was even more true on my second day. My only real goal was to eat Earl Grey ice cream at Molly Moon’s, but I decided that 9 a.m. was too early for that, so I started the day with a wholesome breakfast at Morsel: homemade biscuit with goat cheese, tomato, and cucumber.

I walked a few blocks to the University of Washington campus, and spent nearly three hours enjoying the beauty of it. I half-napped on benches in the sun. I watched people and ducks by the fountain.I wrote and I thought and I spoke literally no words for hours and hours and it was beautiful.When enough time had sufficiently passed I decided to walk to Molly Moon’s. It turned out to be a 45-minute walk, but that was fine. I had no agenda. And it was worth it.The rest of my day was mostly about wandering around and eating interesting food. I went to Chocolati, The Octopus Bar, Tea Republik, and ShareTea. Lastly I wandered over to Troll Avenue and visited the troll sculpture under the bridge.

photo of space needle

I did not need to go across the country to get a moment with myself, or to do things that I love to do, or even to eat interesting food, but doing so gave me a renewed sense of self. In my last post, I wrote about my decision to go back to school, and how terrifying it can be sometimes to make a change and gamble on myself. I hope that one day soon uncertainty won’t scare me at all–I’m not there yet, but closer today than I ever have been.

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The Next Big Act of Courage

I’ve been on a writing hiatus for the past 2 months for no real reason except that I’ve been busy playing Zelda, watching New Girl and generally avoiding a long list of responsibilities that would have me prepare me for next month. In six short weeks, Aa and I are moving to Madison, Wisconsin where I will pursue an MBA with a Risk Management and Insurance specialization. It is both rewarding and terrifying to be taking such a big step and to be beginning another new chapter in our lives.

Earlier this year, I wrote about my first big act of courage, for which I was recognized at the Girl Scouts of Greater Iowa’s “Inspiring Women of Iowa” event. I shared about my experience as a young parent, overcoming poverty and family dysfunction,  attending college on scholarship and graduating with bachelor’s degrees in finance and economics. It’s no coincidence that I’m summoning up my courage a second time to attend college again. The act of picking up my life and moving to a new city, and taking a gamble on myself, is terrifying.  I shared, too, about my struggle to be my most authentic self. In stark contrast to my impoverished rural hometown, I found myself suddenly entwined students and professionals from a diversity of social and economic backgrounds, and I wanted desperately to fit in. And although the students and professors in my new program are some of the most genuine people I’ve ever met, some feelings of inadequacy still resurface. Embracing authenticity is an ongoing journey.

Nevertheless, I am so excited to continue my journey at the Wisconsin School of Business. Risk management is a natural fit for me because I wouldn’t have gotten where I am without taking some risks. I’ve made it my mission to “exemplify leadership with integrity, bravery, and authenticity, taking bold risks and striving for excellence.”

As for Aaliyah, she reports that she’s “80% excited 20% nervous.”  Turns out convincing her to be a Badger fan wasn’t as hard as I imagined (because a teddy bear and a cookie, what more could you want?). She’s filled pride that her mother is earning a master’s degree, and to see her proud and inspired is its own reward. I’ve got some work to do to convince her that risk management and insurance is fascinating, but we’ll get there…maybe.

Books, Ice Cream, and Other Things That Make Me Happy

Last weekend was all about celebrating the things near and dear to my heart, mainly books and ice cream. As I mentioned in my last post, we donated money to the Storybook Project in lieu of gifts, but there were still plenty of gifts to go around (is that cheesy?). I was so grateful for the opportunity to watch Aa perform in her dance recital–to witness the culmination of all her talent and hard work, and to see her so proud of herself. It was especially rewarding to see her perform “the scorpion,” during her routine, as I’ve been patiently watching her foot inch a couple centimeters closer to her head for months.

We had something of a movie theater night at home, cuddled kittens, and laughed way too hard at our inside jokes. On Saturday we boxed up 180 children’s books, and on Sunday, we donated them to the Little Free Libraries in the Oakridge Neighborhood. We treated ourselves to ice cream and a lazy Sunday. All in all, it was a pretty good sampling of the the things that make me happy. Oh, plus I saw a rainbow last week. This weekend I intend to eat tacos and rest up because next weekend kicks off 15 Summer Saturdays before Labor Day.

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No Mother on Mother’s Day: My Life in Books

Last week, the Des Moines Register published an article about the Storybook Project of Iowa, a project that provides books to children of incarcerated mothers. The Storybook Project is unique because mothers are recorded reading books at the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women, a prison in Mitchellville, Iowa, and then the books and recordings are mailed to their children. It is a project that hits very close to home for me. Although I did not participate in it when my own mother was in Mitchellville, I can relate to the children’s longing for a connection with a mother who cannot be with them. Besides that, I remember how deeply meaningful books were to me as a child–how they reached me in a way that humans just couldn’t, and how they helped me make sense of my world.

Because of Winn-Dixie/Walk Two Moons
In lieu of Mother’s Day gifts, we donated online to the Storybook Project of Iowa.

The Storybook Project bridges a necessary gap for children of incarcerated mothers. Not only does it provide a “highly controlled opportunity for children to connect with their mothers,” but the literacy exposure also increases the children’s chances for success. The Register article cites research (which I also touched on in My First Big Act of Courage) showing that children of incarcerated mothers are more likely to live in poverty and in unstable households, and  they are less likely to graduate high school and go to college.

I was so moved by the mission of the Storybook Project,that I approached my own daughter, Aaliyah, and asked her to donate the money in her “give account” in lieu of a Mother’s Day gift for me. She agreed without hesitation. I’m matching her donation with money that I might normally spend on a gift. If you feel inclined to donate too, please let me know, so I can thank you.

The article about the Storybook Project was timely because I’ve been re-reading and reflecting recently on some books from my childhood, as well as reading some new children’s books (sometimes on my own, and sometimes with Aa). Two that were especially meaningful to me as a child were Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo and Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech. Now that I am an adult, re-reading the books has made them even more meaningful in a whole new way.

Because of Winn-Dixie

“Thinking about her was the same as the hole you keep on feeling with your tongue after you lose a tooth. Time after time, my mind kept going to that empty spot, the spot where I felt like she should be.” Because of Winn-Dixie

Because of Winn-Dixie was one of the first book I ever read that I felt was written for me. The only child of a single-father, Opal was a free-spirited, curious child, like me. She longed to know about her mother, and spent most of her time contemplating the answers to 10 questions about her mama. Throughout the book, Opal develops relationships with the community’s misfits, her dog, Winn-Dixie, included. Together Opal and I navigated our neighborhoods and life-lessons barefoot and independent. The friends we made along the way helped us, in their own way, make sense of our 10 questions. As a child, I identified deeply with Opal. I laughed with her, and I cried and cried with her. I felt awkward and embarrassed when she did, and through her, I became strong-willed and passionate. Re-reading this book as an adult, I came to understand the bigger picture: Gloria Dump’s and Otis’ mistakes and quests for redemption; The Preacher’s grief and his shortcomings; and not least of all, Opal’s mother’s identity as an individual, her sense of self, and her own difficult decision to leave Opal and The Preacher.

Walk Two Moons

Walk Two Moons ushered me into my preteen years as I shed my outward, child-like curiosity, and my thoughts and feelings, along with my interpretation of my family situation, gained depth. Salamanca was my inner voice; she described heartache borne of our own experiences, not someone else’s answers to 10 questions. Through her own recounting of an experience with her friend Phoebe’s family, a story Sal shares with her grandparents during a road trip, she struggles to understand her mother’s absence. Unlike Opal, Sal cherished some early memories with her mother like I did. She gave meaning to seemingly insignificant events that still stung my eyes like the memory of blackberry kisses stung hers.

“For the first time, it occurred to me that my mother’s leaving had nothing whatsoever to do with me. It was separate and apart.” Walk Two Moons
Most importantly, Sal discovered that her mother, like Opal’s and mine, was an individual with thoughts and feelings and a life of her own–that motherhood did not define her entire identity. And re-reading this book as an adult, I could relate, more than ever, to that sentiment. While I love my daughter and have no intentions to leave her, forging my own individual identity has required me to reject many of society’s standards for motherhood. I could understand why that would be too much for some.

What I’ve gleaned from all of this, is that I never have to stop learning. I needn’t dwell on any one experience, or any one time in my life, but I can reflect and learn something new about it. I’d encourage everyone to re-read a book from their childhood and to be surprised how it revives old memories and encourages new understanding. For ideas, and more of my favorites, see my list of children’s books to re-read.

The Office, Tacos, and a Room Full of Clocks: An Infographic About Me

I’m getting to know myself, & you should too. Check out this infographic below to learn all about my hopes & dreams and all the stuff I love & hate. (Okay, not all, but some.) This was a fun exercise that took way too much of my Office-watching time. If you’d like to give it a go, you can try at & you can choose from literally millions (probably) of icons at Also, this is prettier in a PDF, probably.
Infographic About Me-Jenna

How to Help Our Girls Save the World

My daughter, Aaliyah, is one of the most thoughtful, kindhearted individuals I know—and she is curious! Last week, topics of conversation ranged from the great depression to grid security to global warming. So when she appeared before me, tearfully concerned about honey bee extinction, I recognized my responsibility to reach out to the adults in her life to change the way we have these important conversations with her. We needed to focus on solving problems and giving her the tools to be part of the solutions.

In the grander scheme of things, I think we have a true opportunity to help our girls save the world. We must help them understand how their values connect with the jobs of the future. We cannot wish away gender disparities in STEM fields; we must actively demonstrate that science, technology, engineering and math are the tools we use to solve problems with cyber-security, climate change, food scarcity, and more. For my daughter, I’ve committed to five parenting principles to foster her growth and education.

  1. Give her freedom to explore
    Aa in AustinWhen Aaliyah first started to toddle, I embarked on a path to full-on helicopter parenting. I was terrified that she would fall and scrape her knees, or that she would break an arm jumping off of playground equipment. I hovered close by and thought often about all of the terrible things that could happen to her (as any responsible parent would, right?). I had decided that it was my responsibility to protect her from all of the hurt in the world, and in doing so, I denied her opportunities to learn. I also used all of my energy worrying instead of using it to foster her growth. Now, I’m a bit (a lot) more free-range than most other parents I know, and that required me to let go of guilt and reject others’ expectations. It required me to let her get dirty and hurt.
  2. Boost her confidence
    Boosting my child’s confidence is absolutely a conscious effort for me. If I sense that she’s feeling apprehensive, we get it all out in the open, which helps me give direct, pointed comments. I don’t say “You’re going to do great,” Instead, I say “You are such a talented artist. I remember when your art was chosen to hang in the main office at school.” and “I remember the last time you were worried about your math test; you did your best and you scored 3 points above your goal,” P.S. I give extra confidence boosters about math, science and computers.(Aaliyah’s on to me, but she tolerates it anyway).
  3. Immerse her in tech
    Aa Hour of CodeWhenever possible, I give Aaliyah opportunities to use technology. Sometimes I strongly encourage (require) her to use a computer to do work, like practicing math, playing coding games, or learning more about a topic she’s exploring at school. In order to receive her allowance, Aaliyah maintains her budget using a simple excel spreadsheet. If I’m in the middle of something and need information, I ask Aaliyah to google it for me. If she needs to choose clothing for the next school-day, she knows where to find weather information. All of these tasks are easily doable for a child of Aaliyah’s age and development. Tech isn’t all work though. We talk about new gadgets, we play video games, and we explore how tech is used in art, which is one of Aaliyah’s interests.
  4. Connect her interests to jobs of the future
    Aaliyah and I are worlds apart when it comes to some of our interests. While I’m more analytical and scientific, she is artistic and creative. She is driven by relationships and community, and I prefer to spend more time on my own.  I try my best to connect with her about her interests in fine arts and social studies. When I see relevant videos on social media, I save them for Aaliyah. It’s important to me that that she has opportunities to see artists in a non-traditional light, in architecture and engineering, in marketing, in video production and animation and more.
  5. Show her how to fail
    This lesson for Aaliyah is one that I’m constantly relearning myself: In order to encourage adventure and risk-taking, we must encourage our girls to try and fail, and more than thatwe must actually try and fail ourselves. To live this principle, I let Aaliyah struggle a little before I offer to help her with any task. If she does not want help, then I move on. I do not keep watching her, or keep offering to help her, and I definitely do not tell her to hand it over so I can take care of it. I trust that she can do it herself, and if she discovers that she needs help, then she can find me and ask.Afterward, I don’t criticize her work, I don’t straighten it up and “make it better” when she’s finished. Besides that, I tell Aaliyah when I have tried and failed. I tell her when I lose a negotiation and when I say the wrong thing to my friend. I tell her when I make an idiot of myself, and when I do something embarrassing. And it doesn’t always feel awesome to admit those things, but it’s never the end of the world. She has to know that even smart, strong, determined women fail sometimes.

Our daughters consistently demonstrate that they care—they are motivated to make the world a better place. For too long, the conversation has been focused on protecting them from danger when we could actually be relying on them make us safer. We have an opportunity, as parents, teachers, role models, to help our girls save the world.

Additional Notes: Girls Are Saving the World

      • At the age of 4, with support from her family, Mikaila Ulmer started Me & the Bees Lemonade, donating a percentage of the profits from the sale of her lemonade to local and international organizations fighting hard to save the honeybees.
      • Marley Dias, an 11-year-old, set a goal of collecting 1,000 books about black girls, which she far exceeded, to donate to schools and libraries.
      • Mira Modi, a seventh grader in New York City, started Diceware, a business to create strong passwords that are easy to remember but extremely difficult for hackers to crack. She notes, “You can definitely make one yourself. I started this business because my mom was too lazy to roll dice so many times, so she paid me to roll dice and make passwords for her.” Sounds about right.
      • Kaya Thomas, a high-schooler, co-founded a STEM camp for girls and developed an appWe Read Too” which helps people search for books that feature main characters who are black, Latinx, Asian, Indigenous, and other non-white ethnicities.
      • Jasmine Babers, determined to help girls overcome bullying and self-doubt, founded LOVE Girls Magazine, a self-esteem publication written and produced entirely by her and her peers, when she was 15 years old.

For more uplifting stories like these follow Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls, Rebel Girls, and GoldieBlox.

And, hey, grown-up women do some pretty amazing things too.

      • Katie Patterson, who founded a full-service marketing firm, Happy Medium, made national headlines this year when she announced paid parental leave for Happy Medium employees (dads and adopting parents too!).
      • Jan, Janet, Kate, Kerry and Tiffan, five Iowa moms connected by their experiences with stillbirth and infant death, channeled their grief into stillbirth prevention efforts. In 2009, they created Healthy Birth Day, a nonprofit organization that funds their Count the Kicks public awareness campaign.
      • Antoinette Stevens, a computer science graduate and a network security analyst, founded Reboot Iowa, Inc, a non-profit to teach adults about coding and technology.
      • Sara Kurovski, elected Mayor of her town at the age of 29, received a congratulatory call Sheryl Sandberg, plus a place in Sheryl’s sequel “Lean In for Graduates.” She has also been recognized as an Emerging Woman of Influence and an Inspiring Woman of Iowa.
      • Kellie Markey, a former vice president at eBay, founded Dorthy’s House, a nonprofit dedicated to rescuing girls and young women who have been sold and sexually trafficked.

There are many, many inspiring stories like these around the nation, but these women are all in Iowa.
For more, subscribe to the Business Record’s Lift Iowa Newsletter.

Embracing Authenticity

For the past couple of months I have been participating in a program, Community Connect, that has challenged me to consider my values, move beyond my comfort zone, and determine my purpose.  Since the program concludes this week, I  was asked to commit to a purpose statement, which I have been preparing (read: avoiding) for at least six weeks. After I was reminded that it doesn’t have to be perfect, I settled on this:

Exemplify leadership with integrity, bravery, and authenticity, taking bold risks and striving for excellence.

Authenticity is something I have learned to appreciate—it wasn’t always so. I have focused so much (too much) of my energy trying to adopt a role and “fit in” wherever I go. I appeared as an intellectual in the professional world, but restrained with family; a parent at my daughter’s school, but a regular college student at my own school; financially secure in some situations, but not too secure among old friends who still struggle. I am ashamed to admit that I spent hours crying about my inability to fit. I didn’t fit in a world of struggle that was once so familiar, and I didn’t fit in a world of relative ease. I didn’t fit with the older parents of my daughter’s classmates, and I didn’t fit with sophomore students planning their study abroad semesters in Spain.

The emotional challenges of social mobility are difficult to overcome, and there is a lot of evidence that recognizes that. Only 11% of low-income, first-generation college students graduate within 6 years; more than 25% drop out after the first year. Those of us who “make it” carry an emotional weight into the workforce too. While we were struggling to connect with our peers, we were also supposed to have learned how to “network” (and to actually understand the value of it). We should have come to terms with the fact that merit does not always earn someone a job the way it earns a grade—sometimes it matters more who you know. If we didn’t learn those lessons early on, we began our job searches without a single professional connection.

Fortunately, my first job did not require a connection, it required a risk. I started as an intern, and earned a full-time position. But several months into it, I was again crying that I didn’t fit (I’m a pretty tough person in general, I promise). I was intimidated by the CEO’s, elected officials, and industry leaders that I regularly encountered. I got the impression, too, that my colleagues’ experiences were farrrrrr removed from mine (which was partly true, but not entirely). At the same time that I was entering this world of relative wealth and knowledge, my dad was having heart surgery and moving into a one-bedroom apartment that I selected for him while he was in the hospital. My brother had died just 6 months earlier of cancer that went undiscovered for months—no health insurance. And I was discovering that there were parts of that world that I couldn’t fix, couldn’t live in, didn’t fit in anymore.

A couple of things happened to get me out of this rut. First, I met a woman with an undying commitment to bettering her community, and she volunteered herself as my professional mentor. She introduced me to community leaders and people who could help me. She counseled me on some basic skills—skills that helped me fit, like how to reach out to someone for coffee to establish a relationship, when to send a thank you note, and what language to use to present myself as assertive, but collaborative.

Excerpt Still I Rise AngelouSecondly, I asked for help. I called on my personal mentors, too, a pair that were also “first-generation professionals” from dysfunctional families (they remind me that all families are dysfunctional in their own way). During one particularly emotional conversation, I was told that I would always feel like I did not fit. Surprisingly, I was relieved. My mentors are incredibly successful people. They travel, they’re well-connected, and they’re involved in their community. They spend time with young and old, rich and poor, and they are the same people everywhere they go. I can be, too.

Authenticity is a journey for me—it’s ongoing. Sometimes I feel awkward and uncomfortable to reveal that I am not heading “home” for the holidays or to be told I don’t look old enough to be a mother (thank you?), and, honestly, it’s pretty awkward when my peers’ parents schedule their appointments for them or, worse, do their laundry. But awkwardness is temporary. It’s okay.

Perhaps the greatest gift of authenticity is the freedom to genuinely connect with others. I have had opportunities to inspire other young women with my own story, and most importantly, I’ve met some astounding individuals whose leadership and strength began as a resilient response to a difficult circumstance. These stories are more common that we realize. I have connected with prominent leaders who have overcome poverty, the deaths of family members, domestic abuse, and more. But is it any surprise, really, that the people who have overcome those obstacles went on to become prominent leaders? I don’t think so. Leaders do not fit in, they rise above.

My First Big Act of Courage

To all of the mentors in my life who inspire me every day to be the best I can possibly be, who lift me up and believe in me. Carole Chambers, Walt and Judy Tomenga, MaryBeth and John Thomas, Jodi and Tim Higbee, Bill and Sharon Burch, Mary Jo Den Hartog, Kate Hash, Community Connect 2017 mentors, and many, many more. 

Today I received an “Inspiring Women of Iowa” award from the Girl Scouts of Greater Iowa. The campaign celebrates influential women in Greater Des Moines who have demonstrated Confidence, Character, and Courage. My mentor nominated me for the Courage award because of the obstacles I overcame growing up in poverty, the child of an incarcerated mother and a father in poor health. Most of my adolescence involved a terribly unhealthy relationship, and at the age of 16, I became a mother. Today, I am a proud college graduate and thriving young professional with many supportive friends, colleagues, and mentors.

Inspiring Women of Iowa Luncheon
Emily Abbas, Teri Wood TeBockhorst, Jenna Herr, Tina Mowry Hadden

When I think about the word courage, which means doing something you’re afraid to do, it very much describes my journey. In the midst of it, I hardly thought that I was courageous; I only knew that I was afraid. I was afraid that my basic needs would not be met. Afraid of being alone, but also afraid of being with people who claimed to love me. Later, afraid that I may not be able to care for my child. Afraid I would have to drop out of school. I was afraid that I would get stuck in a life I hated and that I would always, forever, be afraid.

Today, during the recognition event, Beth Shelton, CEO of Girl Scouts of Greater Iowa (an inspiration herself, by the way), reminded the audience that sometimes acts of courage, confidence, and character start small, and we all have opportunities to plant those seeds with young girls in our own lives. I’m grateful that when I was 18–a mother, but still just a child myself–my boss seized that opportunity. He empowered me to bundle up all of my fear and re-package it as courage. He asked me what I actually wanted to do with my life; he reminded me that in 2010, people did not have to get married just because they’d had a baby.

And when he planted that idea in my head, it didn’t take long for it to grow. I began to imagine a life for myself, to dream about the opportunities I could access with an education. So I prepared to do something that very, very few teenage mothers do: pack up my toddler and move away to college. I completed more than 30 scholarship applications, which involved writing more than 50 essays. For the first half of my senior year of high school, I attended classes, waitressed, cared for my baby, and wrote essays. I visited the University of Iowa and petitioned for direct admission to the Tippie College of Business. I earned 5 scholarships, the greatest of which was the Dale Schroeder Memorial Scholarship. I did not receive any of this because I’d had a child–in fact, some were genuinely concerned that attending university would be too much for me to successfully take on. But I had great grades, was relatively involved in extracurriculars, and had already had many opportunities in my young life to show my mettle.

I did not know what university classes were like because no one in my family had ever been. I did not know that less than 11% of first-generation college students graduate within 6 years, or that less than 2% of teenage mothers earn a bachelor’s degree before the age of 30 (only 38% even graduate high school).  I did not know those statistics, but still, I was afraid. There were times (and there still are) when I felt that I really did not belong. There were times when I thought that I would not make it, and I thought I was making all of the wrong decisions. My friends and mentors can all attest to that!

I learned a significant lesson at a young age: courage is doing what you’re afraid to do. Acts of courage are difficult, and sometimes lonely, but often rewarding. It’s scary to take big risks (especially when other people are depending on you), but if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t be where I am today–and, believe me, I’ll need to bundle up a lot more courage to get where I’m going. Stay tuned. 😉