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I Left Guatemala for Rural Nevada: Lessons in Confronting Overwhelming Change and Taking Control of Your Destiny

Maria Melgar
Consumer Banking Business Strategy Manager
Riverwoods, IL
Pronouns: She / Her

Being an outsider

I’m originally from Guatemala and moved to a very small town in Nevada when I was 10 years old. I joined 4th grade halfway through the year and didn’t know a single person at my new school. I also didn’t speak any English. When my parents dropped me off, my teacher greeted me in a language I couldn’t understand, and I cried. This was the first time in my life that I was truly an outsider having to confront an overwhelming level of change.

Meeting my translator, tour guide and recess friend

Shortly after, and to my great relief, I was introduced to another Latina student in my class, who also spoke Spanish. She took it upon herself to be my translator, school tour guide, and recess friend. In that moment, I learned the value of representation and how impactful it is to see and encounter people who look like you, who speak your language, and who understand your culture, especially when you’re in the minority. Because of that experience, I became passionate about joining organizations that could create those welcoming, diverse, and inclusive environments for people, from student council to employee resource groups (ERGs) like HOLA (Helping Organize Latino Achievement) at Discover.

Creating a place for my passions

When I was younger, I wanted to be a diplomat. I’ve always been very curious about different cultures, traditions, and ways of life. My favorite TV shows growing up were (and still are) food and travel shows. So I wanted a job that would allow me to live abroad, travel extensively, and build relationships with people from all over the world.

Eventually my career interests shifted, but my appetite for new experiences, coupled with an incessant need to push myself out of my comfort zone, have remained. I made traveling my passion rather than my job, and instead took all the lessons I’d gained from my travels, and applied them to my day-to-day career.

Goals vs. dreams

One of my favorite sayings is that “goals are dreams with deadlines.” I love setting an ambitious goal, making a plan, giving 110% to achieve it, and tackling challenges along the way. Be it checking items off my to-do list, or accomplishing life-long goals, I have an innate desire to achieve constantly.

While this trait has served me well, it also means I forget to pause and enjoy those wins. I’m currently working on evolving my sense of mindfulness to be more present, and enjoy the process. Last year really forced me to slow down and spend more time sitting with those feelings. I hope to continue exploring creating a more balanced pace.

Self-advocating can go a long way

My best career advice is to be your own best advocate. To do so successfully, you have to take time to self-reflect and understand who you are, what you want, what your strengths and shortcomings are. This will give you your starting point. After that, it’s about telling your story, articulating the value you bring to the table, and finding the opportunities to communicate what your goals and aspirations are to those around you. You never know who might be listening and has the ability to open those doors.

I received this advice early on in my career and put it to practice a few years into my first role out of college. Having not fully detached from my diplomatic childhood dream, I was working for a multi-national company and I knew that I really wanted to work on an international project. I debated whether I should share this aspiration with my manager, fearing I would get shut down because I was the most junior consultant in the team.

Ultimately, I decided to bring it up during our mid-year review. A few days later, I received a call from our VP of Strategy who said, “Maria, ask and you shall receive.” He was staffing me in a really exciting London-based project with EMEA (Europe, Middle East, Africa) senior leaders. The project led to extensive travel (just liked I’d dreamed!), but most importantly, it was the catalyst for my two future roles in that company. It completely transformed my career, and all because I advocated for myself.

Empowered by my choices

The hardest truth, but also the most empowering one I’ve learned, is that my life is all about the choices I make. In the end, I am the only one who can decide the kind of life I want and make the necessary decisions that will lead me to it. It’s a hard truth because if I let other people choose for me, then I have someone to blame if things don’t work out. But as scary as it is to be fully in control of my life and my choices, it is freeing to know that with a clear vision of what I want in the future, a solid strategy, and the right decisions along the way, my vision is within reach. And sometimes, I have and will face situations that are truly outside of my control, but how I react and respond to them, is still very much my choice.

 

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