I grew up in public housing on Chicago’s West Side. My parents used to struggle with addiction. My lowest point came when, at 17, I dropped out of high school. I could have found a lot of excuses for failing to reach my potential.I didn’t choose the best path – at first. But it didn’t take long for me to realize that I wanted a different life, and that I needed an education to get it. I returned to high school, graduated, and set a goal of launching a career around my passion for technology. I entered a short-term training program. But after a few months, with glossy certificates in hand but few relevant skills, the school closed and I was without a marketable credential and substantial student debt. I learned painfully that there are no short cuts in life.
I set my sights higher – on a degree from the Illinois Institute of Technology, a four-year college in Chicago with a strong computer science program. After meeting with an advisor at the school, however, I recognized I wasn’t financially ready. So I decided to go to City Colleges, where my grandmother had gone years earlier to become a nurse. I earned my associate’s degree and then transferred to the Institute of Technology, where I completed a bachelor’s in computer science. By going to community college first, I saved thousands of dollars on my degree.
These challenges, successfully conquered, have become a source of strength for me and created a well of confidence that I have often tapped during competitions in the classroom and the boardroom.
After college, I was hired by a major Chicago utility company, and ultimately became one of the company’s youngest executives. The climb up the corporate ladder was not always clear, but I worked to maximize every opportunity. I showcased my leadership in volunteer activities the company supported. I sought out responsibilities I was passionate about. I continued to learn, earning two master’s degrees. I raised my hand, and had the confidence to speak up and seize opportunity, in part because of the challenges I had already overcome. I worked hard, and when that was not enough, I worked harder.
I always say I would never change anything about my past. It was the challenges that made me who I am and that led to my role as Chancellor today: I wanted to ensure other students had the same opportunity I did to chart their course in life.
But these accomplishments didn’t come by waving a magic wand. They didn’t come by politely raising a hand. They came from leaning in.
If you embrace challenges, no matter how big, and keep moving forward, one day you will look up and be surprised at how far you have come.
I don’t shy away from conflict or confrontation, I have little patience for excuses, and I have a relentless expectation of excellence – every day. These are the traits I look for when I hire leaders in my organization. Regardless of whether you are male or female, black or white, old or young, these are habits you can practice, too. It all begins with embracing challenges, working hard, and never looking back. If you haven’t already, you can start today.
Cheryl L. Hyman is Chancellor of the City Colleges of Chicago, a 115,000-student network that is one of the nation’s largest community college systems. In that role, she is leading a reinvention of the institution that has resulted in the highest number of degrees awarded in the system’s history. She is proud to note that her parents, mentioned in this article, survived their challenges too, and serve as great sources of support for her today.