Michelle Del Real’s office in San Jose State’s Lucas College and Graduate School of Business is decorated in pictures of her two daughters and son, evidence of the years she has dedicated to helping others thrive. On December 18, 2019, the Santa Clara native will be the second in her family to graduate college—the first being her eldest daughter Meaghan, with whom she enrolled in the child and adolescent development program—an achievement that is not lost on Del Real, who has worked toward a degree for more than 10 years.
“Growing up, I ate breakfast and lunch at school every day,” says Del Real, ’19 CHAD, who works as an analyst for the Lucas College and Graduate School of Business. “We ate government cheese, milk and eggs. My mom made the majority of my clothes and what she couldn’t make was on layaway at Kmart so we could have clothes for school. I still can’t believe I made it.”
Del Real describes a childhood of abuse and trauma, punctuated by a desire to learn and grow. She met her husband in high school and they had their first child when she was 19. Del Real resolved to find a way out of the cycle of poverty, and through her work with the Santa Clara County Office of Education, she was able to pursue an associate’s degree and three education certificates while they raised their family.
“I’ve always wanted to make sure that my kids were on a level playing field,” says Del Real. “I already had a pit dug for me before I even got here, and I had to fight and claw and climb my way out. I wanted to make sure that my kids had a much better ground to start with than I ever did. That’s why I went back to school—I wanted to give them a good example of how important it is to pursue an education.”
Throughout her tenure at the county office, her early childhood education units and her years raising three kids, Del Real realized the system for assisting people with special needs requires work—and it is work worth doing. When her own children received diagnoses for various special needs, Del Real resolved to improve the resources available to parents, children and educators. “If I don’t feel like I’m giving something back, it doesn’t work for me,” she says.
In 2012, she began working at San Jose State, where she helped establish the Lucas College and Graduate School of Business’ Jack Holland Student Success Center, provided support to students, faculty and staff, and enrolled in the child and adolescent development program in 2014. Del Real was grateful for the support of her coworkers and department staff through the application process, because as a first-generation college attendee it was overwhelming. By the time her eldest was ready to apply, Del Real had enough experience that she could truly guide her daughter through the university system. They enrolled in some of the same classes and were sometimes mistaken as twins. Whether or not she realized it, Del Real was leading her family by example.
Del Real plans to pursue a master’s degree in educational psychology or special education, with the ultimate goal of helping families with special needs children. Through her degree program, she has received a solid foundation in human development that helps her every day in her work with students. She earned three scholarships in her final semester and will be graduating Phi Kappa Phi Summa Cum Laude. She is eager to share her graduation day with her three kids, husband of 25 years, mother, father and brothers—the people for whom she’s worked so hard.
“My mom is coming to the ceremony, and it’s a huge deal for me,” says Del Real, her voice wavering as she eyes the highlighted date on her Google calendar. “My biggest message to my kids is to never think that anything is impossible; if you have heart and determination, you can get where you want to be and succeed. I wish somebody had told me a long time ago that I was worth it. It took years of my husband convincing me—and me convincing myself—that I was good enough to do this. And here I am.”