Women’s Forum Of New York Recognizes Gabriela Pelaez-Benitez ’20 for Pursuing Her Dreams and Continuing Her Education

Women’s Forum Of New York Recognizes Gabriela Pelaez-Benitez ’20 for Pursuing Her Dreams and Continuing Her Education

Women’s Forum Of New York Recognizes Gabriela Pelaez-Benitez ’20 for Pursuing Her Dreams and Continuing Her Education

Being a non-traditional college student can come with a lot of obstacles, from juggling parenting and homework, to getting re-accustomed to a classroom and campus setting. But, when it comes to obtaining their education, the five non-traditional John Jay students who recently won the 2019 Women’s Forum Education Fund Award aren’t letting anything stand in their way. Rose-Marie Crystal, Jennifer Flores, Nancy Graham, Gabriela Pelaez-Benitez, and Humanchia Serieux, all exemplify the belief that when it comes to educational dreams, there is no “expiration date.” The Women’s Forum of New York created the award specifically to address the financial needs of women over 35, an underserved population, who are on the path towards completing their bachelor’s degrees. In this series, we spoke to some of the recipients to learn more about their journey to John Jay, their hopes for the future, and their message to other non-traditional students considering college. The next student we’re featuring is Gabriela Pelaez-Benitez ’20, an International Criminal Justice major with a certificate in Forensic Accounting. A mother and formerly undocumented immigrant, she hopes to pursue her master’s degree in Taxation and inspire others, especially her children, to achieve their dreams.

Tell us a little bit about yourself, your background, and your family.
I came to the United States from Mexico in 1987, when I was seven years old. In high school, I observed that many of my classmates were getting ready for the SAT test and for college. Because I was undocumented at the time, I knew I couldn’t apply for financial aid to go to college; there was also limited information available for people in my circumstances at that time. I come from a family that didn’t have the opportunity to get an education. That can be a problem because it creates a pattern of non-education that could repeat itself, but I was determined to break that pattern. I had a deep desire to continue my education because I love learning. So, at the age of 22, I enrolled into Bronx Community College [BCC]. I knew that in order for me to attend BCC, I needed money to pay for my tuition. I got a job at a coffee shop by Rockefeller Center and started saving money to pay for my tuition. I earned my associate degree in 2013, almost 10 years later. It took me some time because I could only attend when I could afford it. At the same time, I was a parent. It wasn’t easy going to work, being a parent, doing homework assignments, and going to college, but it was possible.

When did you start at John Jay? What was it about the College that made you want to come here?
I started at John Jay in 2017. After I earned my associate degree in Paralegal Studies, I knew I wanted a bachelor’s degree and then after that, hopefully a master’s degree. My first choice was John Jay, especially for the classes they offer in law, political science, criminal justice, and forensic accounting. The amount of information and knowledge I’ve gained at John Jay has been extremely valuable. It was at John Jay I learned about peer reviews and how to write and analyze them. It was here that I learned how to write research papers. John Jay challenged me, especially when it came to writing in different styles and analyzing another person’s work. The College has also provided an opportunity for me to improve my analytical skills and work ethic.

“The Women’s Forum Education Fund award was the opportunity I was longing for. It gives me the chance to pursue my dreams and helps finance my master’s degree in Taxation.” —Gabriela Pelaez-Benitez

You are a recipient of the 2019 Women’s Forum Education Fund Award. What does this award mean to you?
The Women’s Forum Education Fund award was the opportunity I was longing for. It gives me the chance to pursue my dreams and helps finance my master’s degree in Taxation. I was initially shocked when I heard I won the award, since I learned of it just two weeks prior to the deadline, but I was excited to apply. I knew I was qualified, since I met all the requirements of age, overcoming obstacles, and my determination to achieve my goals. But, I also knew I was in an applicant pool filled with exceptional women who were equally qualified and deserving of the recognition.

Pelaez-Benitez at John Jay
Pelaez-Benitez at John Jay

Why is it important for women, especially mothers like yourself, to get an education regardless of their age?
It is important for women to get an education because we are role models for our children. Mothers help shape who their children will become. Our children learn from us and watch how we move through life. So, if my children see that I can do it, that I can go to college and earn my degree, there should be no excuse for them not to do it. In college, you learn so many things that you don’t have the opportunity to learn while on the job.

Has there ever been a moment where you felt discouraged?
I do have those moments when I get discouraged, like when I want to go after an opportunity and there’s an age cut off, or I don’t meet the requirements. But I tell myself, “Keep going. No one said it would be easy, this is just one more pebble in the path, but you have to keep going.”

How do you stay motivated?
My children motivate me, it’s a mutual motivation, really. If I can do it, they know they can do it too. I motivate them and they motivate me. Everything I do is for them.

In an ideal world, where do you see yourself in 10 years?
I would love to work for the Internal Revenue Service or any agency performing audits, data analytics or investigative research. Analytics and numbers are a passion of mine. I’m very focused and detail oriented. In fact, I’m a member of the PTA at my kid’s school. I’m currently treasurer and last year was the secretary. Being involved in the PTA means you’re dealing with numbers. I’m involved in fundraising events and the preparation of reports. Last year, I was able to put together a soccer program for the kids at the school.

“There is no cut off age for getting an education. You never stop learning.” —Gabriela Pelaez-Benitez

What advice would you give to others, who may think that going to college is out of their reach?
The advice I would offer is that there is no cut off age for getting an education. You never stop learning. We learn every day. I always tell my kids, you are your own limitation. Life is competitive, and for anything there are requirements, but don’t let that stop you. Use your time wisely. If you’re not pursuing an education then volunteer. You can learn so much by volunteering and interacting with others.

What do you hope your kids learn from you?
I hope they learn resiliency. I want them to always be hopeful, humble, friendly, and kind. I want them to care for and respect others.

“To me, John Jay College means an awakening. It has opened my eyes and made me more analytical, objective, and caring.” —Gabriela Pelaez-Benitez

Finish this sentence for me: Without John Jay…
Without John Jay I wouldn’t be as aware of the many social injustices in the world. To me, John Jay College means an awakening. It has opened my eyes and made me more analytical, objective, and caring. At this College I’ve learned how to research, to think outside the box, and to consider every side of a story. I’ve learned about foreign affairs. I’ve learned about Latinx history, human rights, and why there is poverty in different parts of the world. John Jay has opened my eyes to how big the world is and how I can help. It has paved the way for my dreams to become a reality.