For years, Nia Patton thought she might never complete a college degree. But after gaining an online Associate
of Arts for Transfer from Santa Monica College, she now studies philosophy at Stanford University with plans to go on to law school.
“I applied to 20 schools because I was so nervous,” said Nia, who was concerned about being a nontraditional student and an undergraduate at age 30. Even though Stanford was always her first choice, she considered getting into such a prestigious school “a pipe dream.”
SMC Professor of Philosophy Paul Klumpe convinced her otherwise. “Nia is an intellectually strong, genuinely curious and conscientious student,” he says. So he insisted that she aim for the heights and wrote a letter of recommendation.
Her applications were rewarded with acceptances from institutions including Wellesley College and Brown University, where Nia had intended to go until Stanford changed her status from “waitlisted” to “accepted.”
“I am not surprised that she got into some of the top universities in the world,” Paul adds.
However, Nia was shocked, because most of her college experiences before SMC had not been happy ones. “I’ve had a lot of challenges to overcome and a lot of growing to do,” she admits.
After graduating from a noted prep school in her hometown of Boston, Nia went straight into a four-year university to study philosophy and got interested
in law as well. “The expected path was to get into some Ivy League institution and then you’re set for life,” she says. “And I thought since I wasn’t
on that train, then I was nothing.”
Those seeds of self-doubt quickly gave rise to an emotional crisis. “I had some lingering mental health challenges that started while I was in high school,” Nia recalls. But her new educational setting lacked the support system that she had previously enjoyed. As her freshman year continued, Nia grew more depressed. She began to miss classes and stayed in her room for days at a time.
Her grades plummeting, Nia hoped to transfer but then realized she didn’t know what process to follow. Plus, she admits, “I thought that, given my grades, I didn’t have much of a chance anyway.”
Nia may have lacked academic confidence, but her work ethic remained strong. “I’ve
had a job since the age of 14,” she says. So she dropped out and began working at
Starbucks, where she was promoted from barista to supervisor to manager. Then, when the English
coffee chain Caffé Nero began spreading to the U.S., she took a management position there. That opportunity
led to a visit to London, where she learned the company’s techniques before returning
to the states to open new locations and train new employees.
Then, after nearly eight years in the coffee trade, Nia turned her attention to real estate. In her first year as an agent, she connected 50 different people with new homes. It looked like she was well on her way to long-term success in the field, but then COVID-19 shut everything down. “I tried to make it work by helping people virtually, but I felt like I wasn’t able to support my clients the way I wanted to,” she says.
So Nia took some time to reevaluate her goals. While doing so, she took a job as a nanny — and gained a new perspective by seeing the world from the viewpoint of her young charges. The experience of caring for children to whom every experience was new helped Nia reprioritize her life.
“I began focusing on what really matters and to stop letting stress take over my mind,” she recalls.
Nia’s next step toward getting back on track happened after she moved with her partner
to Utah, where he had taken a job. She returned to real estate, this time working as an office
coordinator, doing everything from answering phones to ensuring that every agent’s
paperwork met legal standards. “Because real estate involves lots of paperwork,” she
Helping her co-workers meet legal compliance reminded Nia how much the law mattered to her. She resolved to return to school to finally fulfill that ambition of becoming an attorney. Knowing she would still be considered a freshman and with cost a consideration, Nia says, “I looked at community colleges to see what my best options would be for transferring to a four-year program.”
As she researched her choices online from her Utah home, SMC came up repeatedly as the best fit for her needs and ambitions. Since Nia was still working at the real estate office, she also appreciated that SMC was both flexible and affordable. The virtual option enabled her to continue her studies without interruption when she and her partner moved to Miami.
Even though Nia pursued her degree remotely, the SMC faculty and her fellow students helped make the experience as social and personal as possible, she says. She took part in the Philosophy Club and her high grades at SMC led to induction in the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society.
Nia has always been driven to aid others. Even when working in real estate, she considered
success in terms of helping people find their ideal home instead of meeting quotas.
So while she plans to become a lawyer, she hopes to avoid the courtrooms that are
so costly to clients. “My dream is to help people avoid litigation,” she says.
Looking back on her circuitous journey, Nia urges prospective students to understand that “there isn’t just one correct way or path to getting your education, so don’t be discouraged if things aren’t looking exactly how you imagined them.” Instead, she insists that anything can be accomplished “as long as you make a plan, work hard and surround yourself with people who want the best for you.”
For Nia, those people included members of the SMC community. So on her way to Stanford, she was excited to visit SMC’s campus, where she finally met Paul in person after having studied with him virtually and enjoying hours of online mentoring sessions.
Calling the professor “awesome,” Nia adds, “he’s very open and could take challenging subjects and make you feel like you’ve always known and understood them.” Paul, of course, always believed in Nia’s drive and abilities — even when she had doubts. “I am very happy for her and excited to see how she grows as a scholar,” he says.
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