My mentor Michelle Kelly and I were matched by the Fulfillment Fund when I was in high school. When we first met, I thought of her as this nice white woman from Minnesota.
I would have described myself as super ghetto. Everything about us was different, even our language. She’d have to stop me to ask, ‘Wait, what does G mean?’ And I told her ‘G. You know, like gangster? Cool, G means cool.’ Michelle had friends who did triathlons. The only running my friends did was from the police, because I had friends who sold drugs and I thought that was normal. I figured, when I was done with high school, I would just drive a cab like my parents did to help the family. That’s as far as my goals went.
I grew up in South Central. Every day when my dad came home from work, he would have to give money to these guys who hung out in front of our apartment building. He had to pay them so he wouldn’t get hurt, and so they wouldn’t hurt us. There were always helicopters circling. Michelle took me to a different side of town where everything looked safe and green. She was actually able to make me think that I could go to college. She took me to the Fulfillment Fund’s Destination College events and she made me apply to go on their college trips. Being on a college campus was the first time I thought someone like me could actually go there.
Michelle helped me apply to 20 different colleges. She let me use her computer, because my family didn’t have one. I ended up at my first choice, Pepperdine. I didn’t really feel like I fit in at first. I talked differently. I wasn’t blond. I hadn’t even seen a surfboard up close before! My parents were cabbies. But Michelle taught me I didn’t have to be hindered by my past that my future was wide open. And she convinced me that I had as much of a right to college as anybody. She also helped me realize my passion and ability for finance. All of my hard work paid off when I landed a full-time job right out of college. I now work in the Private Banking division of one of the world’s top banks.
I went back to my neighborhood’s high school a few years ago to tutor. While I was there, the school was locked down because a student had stabbed a teacher and was threatening other students. Nothing has changed there. But I have changed. When I was right in the middle of it I couldn’t do much about it. I honestly thought that was just how people lived.
The Fulfillment Fund gave me hope that my life could be different, and that it WOULD be different. They taught me that I could survive and then come back and actually make some changes. And I do think anything is possible, thanks to my mentor Michelle, and to the Fulfillment Fund.
Veronica Estrada is a Private Banker at JP Morgan. A 2008 graduate of Pepperdine University, she lives in Los Angeles.