CSU Voices and Views

Building the Door

By Marilyn Thomas
2012 Trustee Emeritus Ali C. Razi Scholar
SFSU Alumna, Master’s Student

Marilyn Thomas and her son at graduation.

Marilyn Thomas and her son at graduation

Milton Berle, of TV’s golden age, said “if opportunity doesn’t knock, build a door.” 

It was hard to hear opportunity knocking as I grew up in San Francisco’s most marginalized neighborhoods, dealt with the fall out of my parents’ substance abuse and became homeless at 15.  The closest thing to a golden age for my childhood came in the brief time my mother, brother and I lived in the middle–class suburb of Millbrae.  It was a struggle to meet the academic challenges of Mills High, but I discovered the joy of learning in my freshman and sophomore years of high school — that was until my family fell apart.

The first two decades of my life could have been the beginning of a different story, perhaps one that ended sadly. Fortunately, the direction of my life changed with the birth of my son. 

I was a 20 year old single parent with a GED and a string of customer service jobs but no career.  My life needed to go in a different direction for my son’s sake as much as mine.  I remembered the families of Millbrae.  In those families a college education was understood as the door to socio-economic success.  I was determined to build that door in my own life.

I started in a community college and then transferred to San Francisco State.  The spark of joy from gaining a higher education reminded me of those two brief high school years and my passion was reignited.  I committed to truly participate in my own education and maximize the experience.  The fascinating thing about being engaged in your own education is how quickly others recognize and support your efforts.  It took only a couple semesters at SFSU before finding a friend and mentor in Dr. Lily Chen.

Professor Chen taught me to think like a scientist, encouraged me to develop an assignment for future students and introduced me to the Spectrum Program — a service opportunity to reach underrepresented teens.  In fact, through the program I met Dr. Kimberly Tanner who quickly became my second mentor as we worked to understand teen views on Human papillomavirus (HPV) leading to the development of more effective educational tools.

Walking across the stage, with a bachelor’s degree in microbiology, was the culmination of the journey I started the day my son was born.  Given that my son is now 17 years old, it definitely wasn’t a sprint.  Yet, every step along the way was worth it and every moment blessed.  In fact, I was so inspired by the experience that I have returned to SFSU to complete a master’s in public health.

I look forward to the future and am excited about the opportunity behind each new door.  I even welcome adversity, because as it is true in science, it is also true in life that overcoming challenges and mistakes is essential for progress and success.

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