Mihaylo College 2020 graduate Yolanda Lambarena (entertainment and hospitality management) rose from an upbringing marred by abuse and addiction to achieve a better life as a hardworking college student with dreams of a career in the movie or sports fields.
When walking in her neighborhood as a 7-year-old girl in the northeast Los Angeles town of Highland Park, Yolanda Lambarena was first confronted with the harsh reality that defined her home life – crack cocaine abuse.
“I passed by this alley on my way home from school, and I passed this man with a small object in his left hand and a lighter in his right hand. I didn’t know what this alley man was doing lighting this small object, but to my child mind, it wasn’t good,” recalled Lambarena in a July 23 interview with Community Keynotes, a podcast by Women for Economic and Leadership Development (WELD), featuring inspirational thought leaders. “Imagine how I felt when I found similar objects in my dad’s jacket. I was scared, and I was worried that my dad was going to end up looking like that alley man.”
In an attempt to keep her father from a similar fate, the young Lambarena would try to break or hide the crack pipes she would find, which would result in her enraged father physically and emotionally abusing her.
One day, Lambarena’s grandmother, who lived with her and her father, explained to the young girl some of the sordid past that underlaid her father’s addiction. Lambarena’s uncle was shot and killed at age 18 in an alley next to his pregnant girlfriend.
After losing his older brother in his teens, Lambarena’s father went from being a smart artistic child to an abusive crack cocaine addict.
“That’s when things started to click. I could have chosen to follow my dad’s footsteps and follow into gangs, hardcore drugs, alcohol abuse. But I chose to do what was right,” said Lambarena. “There are always choices, and some are easier than others. But when you have to make those hard decisions, that determines your future. That becomes a moment of definition.”
Starting a New Life: The Blessings and Stresses
At age 11, Lambarena was reunited with her biological mother, and two years later, she went to live with her mother. It would be a different – and better – life, but the young girl was torn between her desire to live with her mother and her love for her father.
“The emotional toll that this decision took on my life was completely traumatizing. Imagine feeling that you betrayed someone you loved for 13 years just to be with someone you knew for just two,” said Lambarena. “Even after all the emotional and physical abuse I endured, I never could hate my dad. I love him.”
As a high school student, Lambarena avoided the vices that had overtaken her father and was a hardworking student and athlete, with school or sports on each day of the week, and babysitting her younger siblings at other times while her mother worked multiple jobs to afford the Section 8 rental subsidy apartment they lived in.
“I had the most responsibilities and unwanted mom stress. And I was still dealing with my own high school problems, but I was genuinely happy to have siblings and be able to go outside without having to keep track of my surroundings or be scared in general,” said Lambarena.
Recognizing that a college education was essential, Lambarena applied for and was accepted to Cal State Fullerton.
But without support from parents, she had to pay for all her expenses, including her tuition, car, insurance and phone bill.
After a good first part-time job at Starbucks, Lambarena was forced to pursue full-time employment, landing a career job at Toyota, where she worked 30-40 hours per week, in addition to full-time courses to stay on track for her degree.
“I didn’t realize that I sacrificed going out with friends and living the normal teenage life because I thought that I owed my mom and my siblings that extra help,” she said. “So my schedule was ridiculous. I went to classes, then went to work, had to finish my homework on my lunch or right after my shift. It felt like there were no breaks in my life, and I couldn’t even breathe.”
Lambarena recollects one particularly stressful moment of her university experience, when she had worked a weekend shift from 9 a.m. to 1 a.m., with a pivotal midterm exam on the following Tuesday that she did not have time to study for. Discussing her situation with the professor, Lambarena was told that she could still pass the course, which was needed for her to graduate, by earning a “B” or higher on all the other tests and projects.
It was all the hope she needed, and she passed and stayed on track to her goal.
Singlehandedly Achieving a Better Life
The reality of Lambarena’s achievement hit home one day in a psychology class, when she used Section 8 housing as an example in answering a question, and none of her classmates understood the analogy.
“So I had to explain it, and I got judgmental stares. But I realized that those stares were coming from those who just admitted that their parents paid for their full tuition or who had just been gifted brand new cars at their high school graduation. I made it to the same spot they were in, without any of the help. So I felt empowered,” she said.
“All my life, the cards have not been dealt in my favor. I had every reason to take the easy choice and follow everyone else who deals with adversity or abuse: get hooked on drugs, live on the streets, find the easy way to get a quick buck, or even commit suicide.
“But my hope for you is to realize that not everything will be set up for you to accomplish. If anything, life sets you up for failure. But know what you have and learn from others. Figure out your own path to success. Your story can be different in a good way.”
Looking back, Lambarena told Community Keynotes that early independence helped her realize the necessity of choosing a better route than what her father had modeled for her. And the influence of Judith, her best friend’s mother, was also pivotal.
“She was doing so well and wasn’t doing the route my dad was doing or anyone in my community was doing. She was a businesswoman, she was smart, and made her own choices. Seeing her thrive was motivating,” she said.
Professors and instructors at Cal State Fullerton – including Adjunct Professor and Center for Entertainment and Hospitality Management Associate Director Amani Roberts – and celebrities Dwayne Johnson and Jay Shetty have also been influential role models for Lambarena.
When asked about the greatest lesson thus far in her adult life, Lambarena noted the importance of being patient:
“I’m still struggling with it, but I know it is so crucial to get anything done. Don’t lose focus. I think a lot of times you lose focus because of how impatient you are. And you compare yourself to other people because they had it before you, and you lose patience and lose sight of the goal itself instead of how you’re getting there. If you’re taking the steps to [go] there, you realize you are getting there, it’s just taking time. Staying patient while you’re focused on your main goal is the biggest lesson I’ve learned.”
To the Future
Lambarena’s childhood dream was to be an actress. Today, her focus is working behind-the-scenes in the entertainment or sports industries.
“I love movies and can go on for days about movie quotes, but I’ve been in love with sports. I’ve played since I was a kid and then wanted to play professionally, though having some car accidents and injuries, I’m not able to play anymore, but I can still be there,” she said.
A dream job for Lambarena would be working for her favorite baseball team, the Los Angeles Dodgers, in a role such as marketing.
For her appearance on Community Keynotes, Lambarena was given funding, which was crowdsourced, as a graduation gift.
During her interview, Lambarena pointed to this quote from Charles Swindoll, who for 23 years was the head pastor of the Evangelical Free Church of Fullerton, now the site of auxiliary parking for CSUF, as emblematic of her life journey: “Life is 10% what happens to me, and 90% how I react to it.”