How can a girl like me, from the barrios of eastern Los Angeles, find herself preparing to enter the University of California, Berkeley, School of Optometry? I am still asking myself that in amazement. Looking back on my academic path, I have come to realize that I did perform well in courses I never thought would even be accessible. The key to the success of each of my steps was the motivation and self-discipline I had, along with the different support systems I found along my way.

Stepping Into the Batter's Box

Eleven years ago, San Francisco State University (SFSU) accepted me into their 4-year cinema studies program straight out of high school. My high school guidance counselor, an SFSU alum, knew I had an interest in filmmaking and supported my application. When I started the program, I had very high hopes. I thought I would immediately start making films and be spotted by producers for the talent I surely possessed. But I quickly discovered that to be successful in filmmaking, you need a lot of talent or a lot of money. Unfortunately, I did not have enough of either. Being the first person in my family to attend college, I also had no idea what college was really like, and I honestly believed I could work full-time and carry a full course load. I was wrong.

After three semesters at SFSU, I became the first person in my family to both attend and drop out of college. The biggest sting to me was not dropping out of college, but how my younger brothers would be affected. How could I keep encouraging them to go to college when I had dropped out myself?

Finding My Pitch to Hit

After SFSU, I found myself working in many retail jobs, but even then I knew that life had more in store for me than folding thousands of T-shirts. Luckily, I ended up working as an assistant with an optician who inspired me to follow in her footsteps. As an optical trainee, I sold nonprescription sunglasses, but I also learned how to interpret optical prescriptions. My boss helped me reexamine my life by forcing me to look within. Her encouragement helped me understand how much potential I had.

After receiving a few years of on-the-job training in optometry, I realized that to advance my career I would have to complete a bachelor's degree. While working full-time, I started attending classes part-time at my local community college, Contra Costa College (CCC) in San Pablo, California. My short-term goal was to complete my associate's degree at CCC and then transfer to a 4-year institution. My long-term goal was to pursue a degree in optometry.

I chose business as my new major at CCC because I had in mind to manage optometry offices, but I later switched to biological science to get the courses important for my future in optometry. At CCC a student must complete most of their major courses before transferring to a 4-year institution. For me this meant calculus and one semester each of statistics, general chemistry, organic chemistry, biology, and physics, including lab classes for each science course. I was a little apprehensive about these courses at first, but I was determined to give it my all. Fortunately, I found a great "coach."

On my first day of the general chemistry course, I met another student who would not only help me through the class, but the two of us would transfer together and form a strong friendship. One of her early pieces of advice turned out to be just the kind of academic and financial support I needed. She belonged to the Center for Science Excellence ( CSE), a program at CCC that helped underrepresented students in the sciences by providing tutoring, mentoring, and financial support. I immediately applied, sending in transcripts and recommendation letters from professors, and was accepted.

Being part of CSE opened up a world of opportunity for me. For instance, faculty members from the University of California, Berkeley (UCB), regularly came to CSE to recruit students, so I met a few of them and was able to take a class at UCB. I also won a major internship at the Indiana School of Optometry, where I did research in adaptive optics and studied blood flow in retinal capillaries. Overall, CSE gave me a supportive second family of fellow students and faculty mentors. The program administrators were always available for advice and guidance. They taught us how to succeed in science classes as well as in life. They instilled in us the need to give back to our communities. There is nothing I would not do for the CSE, and I know 10 years from now they will still be there to support me.

Always Swing for the Fences

I completed my studies at CCC and transferred to UCB. I took the next 2 years to complete my bachelor's degree in molecular and cell biology. Now that I'm just about to enter professional school, I'd like to share with you what I see as instrumental in my success.

The best pieces of advice I've received were to always give everything a go and learn how to accept rejection. Never keep yourself from applying for a program or grant because you think you will not be selected. Let the committees decide that. Often you will find that you may not fit the profile of a perfect applicant, but this doesn't mean a program administrator would not value your presence. Even if you are not chosen, you will learn from each experience and success will come closer with each try.

Remember to pace yourself. Taking three science courses a semester is not a good plan no matter how brilliant you are. Getting all your "easy" classes out of the way to focus on your major program later is also a common yet usually ill-devised plan.

Allow time to relax outside of your studies, but don't forget that your main job is to be a student. Remember to manage your time wisely. I have had to learn how to politely say "thanks, but no thanks," and this has helped saved my sanity and GPA. Also, I know from personal experience that working full-time and going to school is difficult. Take out loans if possible, but if you must work, be prepared to juggle your time. Try to find an understanding workplace.

Don't be afraid to ask for help. Most colleges have a skills center that your student fees have paid for, and your professors also usually set up office hours to see you. You might want to look up what their research and interests are so you can have more to talk about than just class. This will help you develop a long-term relationship.

Surround yourself with great people and never lose contact with your mentors. They want to help you, and they deserve to hear your success stories. Once you are in your university, look for new people who will genuinely be interested in your success. Also be prepared to give back. You will soon become a valuable resource in your community.

There will be tough times ahead of you. Classes will become more difficult as you matriculate through a 4-year institution. There will be times when you feel like you are being punished for choosing such a tough path, but don't give up. You must trudge along and finish your degree. Remember that there are hundreds of students who would give anything to be in your position. It may take you a little longer to finish, but "it's a very long season." Stay focused and you'll be successful in the end.

Baseball Has Been Good to Me

Why all the references to baseball? I love the game, and it has taught me one important lesson: Not all of us are destined for million-dollar contracts, but we can all still bring love and dedication to everything we do. It's not always whether we win or lose. The only thing that really matters is that we get our uniforms dirty and play our hearts out. Swing for the stars and always dream of the home run!

Monica Piñon will enter the University of California, Berkeley, School of Optometry fall of 2005. She may be reached at mnpinon@berkeley.edu. Barton Gledhill may be reached at bgledhill@biolink.ucsf.edu.