As a college adviser with 10,000 Degrees in Santa Rosa, Liz Padilla’s job is to help students from low-income backgrounds become the first in their families to earn a college degree, their single biggest ticket to a life of opportunity.
“When one low-income student is first in their family to graduate from college, the cycle of poverty is broken for that family and for future generations. Our communities, our state, and the whole world become better places,” the Larkspur-based nonprofit states on its website.
As Padilla helps students explore career options and navigate the college experience, she brings firsthand knowledge about how challenging the process can be.
She is the oldest child of immigrants from Jalisco, Mexico, born in Santa Rosa and raised on a dairy farm in Healdsburg with her brother, Emmanuel, and sister, Jocelin. When she was 12, her family returned to Mexico.
“It was my dad’s dream to move back to his home country with his family,” said Padilla, 29. “I was terrified to live in Mexico. I had visited every year, but living there was different. I had to attend school and learn the language.”
Padilla and her siblings were good students, and her father made the decision to return to California after she completed ninth grade, though he didn’t fully realize the challenges she faced. Her father wanted the children to have options, but pursuing higher education wasn’t a subject they discussed.
“He saw that we enjoyed school, but he didn’t see the possibility of helping us. He knew it was better to move back,” Padilla said.
Once back in Sonoma County, Padilla enrolled in high school. One summer day before her junior year was a defining moment.
“My mom and I had a meeting with my high school counselor, whom I’d never met with. The meeting was cut short after the counselor told me I should apply to the junior college because I most likely wouldn’t make it through a four-year college.”
Padilla turned to her mother, who didn’t understand English, and said, “Ya nos vamos.” (“We’re done.”) Then they left. She didn’t translate to her mother what happened that day, but from that day forward, Padilla said she was determined to succeed. She changed counselors and applied to CSU Sacramento and Sonoma State University. She was accepted at both, eventually choosing CSU because of its diversity.
The counselor’s words also inspired Padilla to become an advocate for students and a counselor who did things differently.
“It’s important not to diminish the dreams of your students,” she said.
As a college freshman, however, Padilla found herself feeling overwhelmed.
“I wasn’t prepared academically, and I wasn’t prepared for how to develop a schedule, handle the workload or manage my time,” she said.
Fortunately, two programs helped her through the college experience — the Educational Opportunity Program and the College Assistance Management Program.
“If it wasn’t for these two programs and my amazing counselor, Rosana Chavez, I would’ve been lost,” she said.
Padilla graduated in 2011 with a degree in ethnic studies, then returned to earn a master’s degree in career counseling in 2015.