How Relentlessly Pursuing My College Degree Paid Off

by Natalie Hambalek

My past has a story that I do not readily talk about, but ultimately it has driven me to become who I am today.  The actions I take, the spirit I have, and the things I face every day involve me bringing everything I have, including the struggles I have faced.  Despite the uneasiness I felt about spilling my path to college out on paper, by sharing my story I was able to be recognized in a way that I have never been recognized before.I am very pleased and honored to be Sonoma State University’s nominee for the 2011-2012 William Randolph Hearst/CSU Trustees’ Award for Outstanding Achievement. The award is given each year to students who “are in financial strains, experienced personal hardships, and have significant attributes of merit including superior academic performance, exemplary community service, and significant personal achievements.”  I have overcome a number of barriers, so I decided to give it a shot. When I started the application process early last semester, I had no idea of what a profound effect it would have on me down the road. When I was flown down to the CSU Board of Trustees Office in Long Beach to accept the award, I didn’t know what I was in for and let me tell you, I completely underestimated the situation.

The moment I sat down in the large Coronado meeting room at the CSU Chancellors Office among the incredible students “made in the CSU”  I realized just how important this was. I was a representation of the over 400,000 students of the system, many of whom have faced barriers to get to college.

From left to right: Chair of the CSU Board of Trustees Dr. Herbert L. Carter, me, CSU Trustee Emeritus Dr. Ali C. Razi, and CSU Chancellor Charles B. Reed

Through this entire process I have been hit by many realizations. One is that I am more hardworking than I give myself credit for and another is how much I have grown — working at the Center for Community Engagement with Merith has undoubtedly played a significant role in my development.
Since I am not one to love the spotlight and I avoid high levels of attention at every chance I get, after this experience I can say that I am extremely proud to be a Hearst Scholar. During the large ceremony — which also was the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the CSU’s existence– fellow CSU Northridge graduate Bill Griffeth, a nationally respected financial journalist and the co-anchor of CNBC’s “Closing Bell, and Gretchen LeBuhn, creator of The Great Sunflower Project spoke of their path after graduating from the California State University system. It felt so inspiring that one day, I too could have so many meaningful accomplishments.

I had a fancy lunch with, SSU President Ruben Arminaña, Trustee Henry Mendoza,  and my family.   Other awardees, CSU Chancellor Reed and other Trustees were also there.  This was a particularly awkward experience for me because as much as I admire their accomplishments, I knew that this was very political. I consider myself to be a student activist and have spent time lobbying legislators at the State Capitol for more funding and support for Higher Education, so sitting among administrators of this magnitude was a bit unnerving.

(L to R) My mother, me, SSU President Ruben Armiñana, and my aunt after enjoying our elegant lunch.

Later on, the other 22 Hearst Scholars and I gathered in a room and had the opportunity to share our stories.  As the hours progressed I felt so humbled and privileged just to be sitting in a room with them.  The energy was amazing.  For once I felt as if the struggle it took me to get to college was shared by others, which gave me comfort and a positive outlook. We ranged in age, race, gender, ability, and experience, yet we were all able to get to where we are with smiles on our faces and amazing strength to keep moving forward.  I still remain inspired, humbled, and so very grateful for this amazing experience that I was given.

The 23 amazing 2011 Hearst Scholars


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