For many students, the eve of high school graduation brings a range of emotions like satisfaction and accomplishment, excitement and nerves. For Terri Chhay, the day of her graduation rehearsal brought on shock and confusion: she found out she was seven weeks pregnant.
Her discovery was the coda of a high school career marked by high expectations, the wrong crowd, and fluctuations between academic apathy and achievement. As Terri has shown since, however, she is not defined by that moment or any other. She has transformed perceived setbacks into success thanks to her smarts, sheer force of will, and maternal love.
The Providence, R.I. native was raised in a very traditional Cambodian family. Her parents taught her to value education, and she felt pressure to be the perfect child and live up to their high hopes for her. She went in the other direction, dating and affiliating herself with gang members and barely attending school.
“I have no one to blame but myself for the poor decisions I made,” Terri said. “It seemed as though no matter how hard I tried, I was prone to making nothing but mistakes.”
Feeling like she had let down both her family and herself, Terri resolved during her senior year to do whatever it took to cross the graduation stage with the rest of her class. She wanted to enter the medical field and attended summer school – paid for out of pocket – to help boost her GPA. Two weeks before graduation, she passed her senior presentation with a 95.
“I thought to myself, ‘Wow, I’ve finally made it,’” Terri said. “I am going to prove everyone who has ever doubted me wrong.”
Then came the pregnancy surprise. At 18, Terri said she could barely take care of herself, let alone a baby. Still, she graduated with her classmates and spent the next year doing her best to balance working full-time and taking care of herself and her unborn child. She admitted that every day was a struggle.
“The people who I expected to be there for me were nowhere to be found,” Terri said. “I felt alone most of the time and I reached such a low point that I would question the point of my existence. I had no clear path for my future.”
On Jan. 9, 2011, Terri gave birth to her son Armani. He quickly became her motivation to make it through each day with a smile on her face.
“As I held my son in my arms and saw his precious eyes staring back at me, I realized I needed to be strong and positive,” she said. “I brought an innocent child into the world, and it was my job to love, support, and protect my child to the best of my ability.”
In those early weeks of late-night feedings, diaper changes, and infant cries, change didn’t happen overnight. Terri lived paycheck to paycheck, working minimum wage at a local Walgreen’s Pharmacy. Eight dollars an hour wasn’t enough to support her son, yet she didn’t want to depend on state assistance or struggle with college debt.
Terri heard about Year Up from several close friends who were alumni of the program and had found success. When her son was 1-year-old, she enrolled in Year Up Rhode Island. Terri said she found the rigorous course load and time commitment a challenge, especially as she juggled a part-time job and being a loving mother to Armani. But, as she had in many other phases of her life, she tackled the work head-on.
“The worst is feeling like you are taking time out of your child’s life or missing the most important memories,” Terri said. “During Year Up, I sacrificed time away from him, but I forced myself to understand that the time I took away from him while he was still young would be substituted by the time I would get to spend with him in the future once I was self-sufficient.”
Terri’s ambition, tenacity, and intelligence made her a top performer at Year Up. After six months in the Learning and Development phase, she earned an internship at CVS Caremark as a Talent Management Intern. There, Terri learned more about corporate culture, built a network, and grew as a young professional.
“Not once did I ever feel like I was just an intern; I felt like part of the team,” Terri said. “My colleagues provided me with feedback and were always open to any development opportunities that came my way.”
“The greatest lesson I learned through the internship phase is that opportunity is what you make of it,” she continued. “As long as you go to your internship every day with a positive attitude, people will see that.”
And people at CVS took notice of Terri’s strong work ethic. After graduating from Year Up in January 2013, Terri got a full-time job with the company as an employee relations specialist. She loves her role both for what she does to support CVS employees, but also what she learns from her colleagues.
“I love HR and what I do, but HR is so vast that I would love to experience bits and pieces of the business before determining where my passion truly is,” Terri said. “My coworkers have not only become my peers, but great friends.”
Those coworkers have also provided plenty of parenting advice, Terri said. Armani is now 7-years-old and Terri has embraced her role as a young mother, as she sees it as an integral part of who she is and part of her success. Work-life balance is a moving target, as it is for any parent who works full-time. Terri works at it every day and appreciates the support from her parents – who she thanks for keeping her on the right track and being “great grandparents” – along with her colleagues, mentors, and Year Up classmates.
“Despite how anyone looked at me or labeled me, I realized that the challenges I face or the fact that I am a young mother doesn’t make me a bad person or mother,” Terri said. “In fact, they make me the best woman and mother I can be for my son.”