Mother and daughter, who immigrated from Colombia, graduate from William Paterson University together

Sandra Murillo and Katherinn Lopez Murillo

Though Sandra Murillo ‘19 always dreamed of earning a college degree, her daughter Katherinn Lopez Murillo ‘19 did not want to go to college – despite repeated pleas from her mother, who brought them from Colombia to the U.S. in search of a better life. When Sandra completed her first semester at William Paterson University, though, Katherinn was so inspired that she earned an associate’s degree, and then applied to and enrolled in WP, as well. She took summer classes in order to catch up to her mother, hoping they could graduate together.

That hope will be realized on May 15 during the University’s 2019 undergraduate commencement ceremony at the Prudential Center in Newark.

Sandra, age 46, of Woodland Park, New Jersey, is earning a bachelor of science degree in public health. Katherinn, 25, also of Woodland Park, is earning a bachelor of arts degree in criminology. 

Will. Power.

In 1996, newly divorced, Sandra decided to leave Colombia and relocate to the U.S. – despite the fact that she had no family here and did not speak the language. Due to an unexpected custody battle, she was forced to make the move alone, leaving 2-year-old Katherinn behind with family for what she hoped would be a short period of time.

Sandra arrived in New Jersey, started working in restaurants, and took classes to learn English, planning to then earn a degree, get a great job, and make enough money to buy a house in which she’d eventually raise her daughter. 

“I just came here with hope that life would be easier … I never thought that coming here, I’d encounter so many challenges,” Sandra says, citing many tear-filled calls and visits to Colombia. “I was so alone and I was so discouraged, and I felt like it was going to take me 20 years to graduate.”

So, Sandra finished her English classes and put the college degree on hold. She went into a one-year medical assistant program, secured a job in that field, and continued fighting to have Katherinn come to the U.S. – a battle she won after 10 long years, in 2006, when Katherinn was 12 years old.

A single mother struggling to make ends meet, Sandra couldn’t stop dreaming about a college degree and all that she could accomplish with one. With a teenager at home, she enrolled part-time at Bergen Community College and “after four long years of ups and downs in life,” she graduated with her associate’s degree in science in 2014. Two years later, with Katherinn grown and working fulltime, Sandra enrolled at William Paterson to earn her bachelor’s. She went to school full time and worked full time as a medical and case assistant in a substance abuse center.

Katherinn was also in class and at work full time –  as a counselor-intern at the same substance abuse center  – thanks to her associate’s degree in human services from Passaic County Community College. She is currently working toward a professional certification in alcohol and drug counseling, and has already completed the 3,000 supervised hours required for such. 

“I just didn’t want college at all at first; I thought college wasn’t for me and that I couldn’t do it,” Katherinn says. “But when my mom enrolled, I thought, ‘Okay, if she’s doing it, I have to do it, too.’ It was hard … and at times we’ve wanted to kill each other because we both had so much pressure and were so overwhelmed … but it was absolutely worth every minute,” she adds, noting the opportunities afforded to her with a four-year degree. Katherinn plans to take the Civil Service Exam and seek employment in law enforcement, specifically in parole.

“People like us,” Sandra says of struggling immigrants, “We need to study or we’ll never get ahead in life. We women especially, we have to be empowered. If you have money and no needs, you probably won’t want to go to school as an adult while working fulltime, because it’s hard; it’s very hard. But when you want to do it, and when you come to the end – when you finish and accomplish that goal – you have no idea how it feels,” she adds, crying. “I am so grateful. I thank God every day for giving me the strength, and for giving me this wonderful daughter who was there with me through the hard times, and for making this more special because she’s graduating with me.”

Sandra is currently in the final round of interviews for a professional, hospital-based position in Florida. She and Katherinn plan to relocate to Naples, Florida to be closer to family in Colombia.

“We have to dream. We have to dream really, really high,” Sandra says. “I always want to encourage people to go back to school and don’t ever stop dreaming and learning: It’s just you and your mind. Especially when I talk to women who have problems in their marriage – divorcing, separating – and they say they’re too old to go to school and start over, I say, ‘You’re never too old to go to school.’ That sounds funny, but it’s true.”