Hoffman Estates woman's path from GED to Stanford

Hoffman Estates woman carves path from the GED to Stanford

  • Catherine Sanchez will begin studying neurobiology at Stanford University this fall, but her road to the prestigious school has been anything but easy. She graduated from Harper College in May with a 4.0 GPA after spending several years balancing classes with working sometimes two full-time jobs and supporting her sister.

      Catherine Sanchez will begin studying neurobiology at Stanford University this fall, but her road to the prestigious school has been anything but easy. She graduated from Harper College in May with a 4.0 GPA after spending several years balancing classes with working sometimes two full-time jobs and supporting her sister. Mark Black | Staff Photographer

  • Catherine Sanchez, of Hoffman Estates, was accepted into Stanford University as a transfer student, and will begin studying neurobiology this fall.

      Catherine Sanchez, of Hoffman Estates, was accepted into Stanford University as a transfer student, and will begin studying neurobiology this fall. Mark Black | Staff Photographer

  • Catherine Sanchez, of Hoffman Estates, was accepted into Stanford University as a transfer student, and will begin studying neurobiology this fall.

      Catherine Sanchez, of Hoffman Estates, was accepted into Stanford University as a transfer student, and will begin studying neurobiology this fall. Mark Black | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 9/5/2016 8:58 AM

For Hoffman Estates resident, Harper College graduate and now Stanford University student Catherine Sanchez, focusing solely on learning -- something she places a great deal of importance on -- has not always been a possibility.

The 30-year-old straight-A student who will study neurobiology this fall said she grew up with parents who were mentally ill and abusive. Sanchez's family moved frequently when she was a child, including as she was finishing high school, at which point her parents said they would "home-school her," but failed to do so.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

In an effort to escape her home life, Sanchez said, she followed a deadbeat boyfriend to Richmond, Illinois. After being rejected for some jobs because she didn't have a high school degree, she took the GED test at McHenry County College, a move that rekindled her love for learning.

"It kept kind of itching at the back of my mind. Even though I liked my job, I really wanted to go back to school," she recalls. "And I realized I was on my own and I could probably go back."

Sanchez scored in the top 1 percent on the GED and received her diploma in the mail on Valentine's Day, then enrolled in two classes at Harper College in 2009 at age 23.

She soon faced another hurdle when her boss at McDonald's scheduled her to work through her classes.

"I wasn't sure if I was going to be able to take classes and fit it into working," Sanchez said.

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She told one of her professors why she had to drop his class.

"He said, 'If you want to stick with it, we'll make it work.' And that gave me the confidence to keep trying."

Sanchez read the entire textbook that night.

She said the professor's understanding nature and willingness to work with her schedule is something she experienced with all her professors. And they noticed her hard work.

"She was really thoughtful and had amazing ideas," said psychology professor Kirsten Matthews, who taught Sanchez's honors child psychology class. "She has a really strong foundation, and the ability to think critically."

Sanchez eventually quit McDonald's and took a job in quality assurance at a medical records warehouse. She took a second job at Michael's Arts & Crafts after her sister, who is two years younger, moved in with her.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Her new normal involved working from 4 a.m. or so until 10 a.m., taking a three-hour nap before honors chemistry, then working from 4 p.m. to midnight.

She planned to transfer to the University of Illinois. But she and her husband, Abraham, whom she's been married to for six years, were told during orientation they made too much money to qualify for financial aid, but not enough for private loans. "There was no way we could pay the $8,000 a year it was going to cost," Sanchez said.

She went back to working two jobs, this time at Costco and a dentist's office, seven days a week. And she suffered health problems, eventually diagnosed as fibromyalgia, a condition associated with anxiety and post-traumatic stress. She believed it came from abuse she endured in childhood.

Then in 2014, "I came across an old journal where I wrote about how much I love being in school," Sanchez said.

She quit one job to go back to taking classes at Harper and began looking again at transferring to four-year schools. At the behest of her husband, she applied to Stanford, despite being sure she couldn't get in.

"He kept poking me, telling me, 'you need to do this, you need to apply, you need to go,'" she said.

She was all set to attend Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago, and was just waiting for her Stanford rejection letter.

"I was at work the day the letter came," she said. "I opened up the email and I read it four times … Never, ever, in my life did I think this was going to happen."

She called her husband, but started crying and couldn't get words out, so she sent him a screenshot.

The Rotary Club of Schaumburg/Hoffman Estates donated money for her schooling and the Barrington Breakfast Rotary Club donated 50,000 airline miles so she can fly home on breaks.

Sanchez hopes that after Stanford she can bring more understanding to how the brain factors into human health.

"If we had a better understanding of that, there might be less of a stigma around mental illness," she said. "I think that there's a lot of social issues that we need to understand better and if you understand the brain and how the brain works, maybe that will help."

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