At age 40, Rosalba Brambila, a mother of four sons, will receive her bachelor’s degree in environmental engineering on June 13, 2015. Her path to graduation has been fraught with challenges that many would find hard to imagine.

The early years

Brambila, whose parents emigrated from Mexico, grew up in a “nasty, ugly, bad” part of south-central Los Angeles where she witnessed gang violence, heard gunshots regularly, and recalls drive-by shootings. At age 14, she had to start working full time when both her parents became disabled. Her father, a construction worker with a third-grade education, suffered a back injury. Her mother, a sewing machine operator with no schooling, developed debilitating carpal tunnel syndrome from working long hours in a factory.

While going door-to-door selling Shaklee nutritional products to support her parents and four siblings, Brambila barely managed to graduate from high school. Although she took advanced placement classes in high school and passed, she struggled to keep up in her classes while working full time and facing an hour-long bus ride to school.

Even so, she always knew she wanted to attend college.

“My interest has always been the well-being of people, especially children, so I always knew I wanted to go to college, to make a difference and to help people,” she said. “But somebody in high school told me there would be no way I would ever be able to pay for it.”

Losing everything

Brambila married and started a family at age 20, but her husband struggled with alcoholism and became abusive. She fled to Gresham, Oregon, where her parents had relocated.

“When we got there, my boys and I had nothing,” she said. “But I managed to get on my feet.” For seven years, she held a good job with apparel giant Perry Ellis, where she used her bilingual skills as an international licensing coordinator for high-end swimsuits made by Jantzen and Nike. On her annual salary of $48,000, she even managed to buy a house.

When the economy tanked in 2008, Brambila lost her job. She struggled to pay her bills and eventually lost her house.

“I tried so hard to keep that house… there were times when I took the boys to a gas station down the street to use the toilet because the water had been shut off,” she said. She heated bath water on the kitchen stove when the gas company turned off the gas. “We learned to shower from a five-gallon bucket,” she said.

With no college degree, her search for work in the suddenly tight job market turned up nothing, so she let go of her house, moved in with her parents, and reluctantly applied for public assistance. This allowed her to start taking classes at Mt. Hood Community College.

Getting started on the dream

Going to school was challenging with four young boys at home. “I used to put them to sleep and go to bed myself, then set the alarm and get up at midnight and study until 4 a.m. while it was quiet in the house, then sleep a little more,” she said. “Every term, I would tell myself, ‘I am a crazy woman! What the hell am I doing?’ But I could see ahead ten years, and I just knew it would get better.”

So she hung in there for two years, taking classes every term. She continually applied for scholarships and worked as a tutor on campus to help pay the bills. At times her parents didn’t understand why she was so driven to do this.

“They are very traditional and felt my top priority should be with my children, my family,” she said. But she was looking at the long-range picture, toward a better future for her boys.

She credits the Transitions Program at Mt. Hood Community College with helping her succeed as a student and helping her to determine that environmental engineering would be a good career path for her.

Because it had an environmental engineering program and a strong emphasis on research, she knew she wanted to attend Oregon State University, but she worried that she wouldn’t be able to pay tuition at a more expensive four-year school — not to mention covering housing and food costs for her and her boys.

Then one day, she hit the jackpot. She got the news that she was one of 120 students selected from almost 5,600 applicants to receive a Ford Family Foundation Scholarship, which would cover 90 percent of the costs of her college education.

“Getting the Ford Scholarship was better than winning the lottery for me – it made a huge difference,” she said. “There is no way, with four boys, that I would be able to be here right now without that scholarship. It’s still really hard to pay all the bills, but since getting the scholarship, we’ve never had the gas or power shut off.”

The scholarship also helped her parents better understand why their daughter was working so hard to get a college degree. “Now when they visit, they tell the boys, ‘You have to help out your mom because she has to study.’ ”

Although her parents have very little money, they bring a food box when they come to visit. “They can’t do much, but they do that,” she said. “And my dad, he is a good role model for my boys.”

Struggling with finances

Brambila lives in Albany, where rental rates are cheaper, and drives back and forth to campus in an early-1990s green Cadillac she bought from a mechanic friend for $1,500. She knows how to change the oil and check the fluids, but the car has left her stranded on the road more than once.

“But it has a green leather interior!” she joked. “So I ride in such luxury!”

She has applied to live in family housing on campus to save commuting time and fuel costs, but so far, she has not been selected.

When she first started attending Oregon State, her youngest son, Brian, was not yet in school. She couldn’t afford childcare, so she relied on friends. Sometimes, however, things came up and she had to bring Brian to class with her. “I always called and asked my professors first if that would be okay, and they were always very accepting,” she said. “I would bring coloring books and a bag of carrots for Brian.”

The hardest part of her journey toward a college education, she said, has been “dragging my kids through all of this.” She hopes the hardship will help them in the long run.

“I think it’s been harder on them than me,” she said. “I don't care if I’m wearing new clothes. But when they need new shoes, it’s hard to tell them to wait for their birthday, or Christmas. But I think it’s helping them learn to budget and value things. And they’re awesome kids.”

Seeing light at the tunnel’s end

Today, Brambila and her boys, now 18, 14, 13 and seven, all study around the kitchen table in the evenings. “We are all learning,” she said. “They see me putting in the time, and I’m hoping that will have a huge influence on them.”

This fall, she will start a master’s program under the tutelage of Stacey Harper, an assistant professor in the School of Chemical, Biological, and Ecological Engineering, where Brambila will research the impacts of nanoparticles in water.

She hopes to eventually work for a nonprofit or government agency to bring safe, potable water to future generations. “Water is a very limited resource,” she said. “Today, we’re fighting wars over petroleum, but soon they will be fought over water.”

Harper was able to find grant money to cover Brambila’s graduate school tuition for next year, and she will be doing some work in Harper’s lab this summer. “So now I have to figure out how I’m going to pay my rent next year,” she said. “One more year, and then things will be better.”

Brambila has come this far, so it seems only fitting that she should add another, positive memory she’ll never forget: picking up her diploma in person at Reser Stadium, where her sons, siblings, and parents will no doubt be cheering from the audience.

— Gregg Kleiner

Published Date: 
Monday, June 8, 2015