This is the first installment of our ongoing series titled “Six Figures” where we feature successful women and find out how they got where they are today.
Wendy Estrella seems to make the day stretch beyond 24 hours – and loves every minute of it. The successful Massachusetts Dominican-American attorney, community college Board of Trustee and civic leader has achieved recognition and financial security, yet she loves telling young Latinos her background is like so many Latino immigrant teens. If she can do it, so can they.
“It’s so surreal sometimes, I look at myself in my law practice, in court in front of a judge, or giving a keynote speech at a school, and it’s such an overwhelming feeling,” says the dynamic professional and mother of three boys.
Estrella has her own flourishing legal firm in Lawrence, Massachusetts, and she uses her bilingual skills to help represent Latino clients in real estate, family, bankruptcy and other cases. She is also a member of the Board of Trustees for Northern Essex Community College (NECC), an institution which serves many of the area’s Latino students. What makes this appointment so special is that this is the place Estrella credits with changing her life. “Attending this community college was a game-changer for me.”
Estrella explains that like many Latino immigrant students, she thought the only road to educational success was through a four-year college immediately after high school. She got accepted into a four-year university in a different part of the state, and left home ready for success.
It did not work. “I walked the hall of shame,” Estrella says. “I was so anxious to do well, I envisioned great things and then this happened.” What “happened” was simple – Estrella did not have sufficient English-language skills to do well in college. She had arrived from the Dominican Republic in her teens, and in high school was placed in bilingual/Spanish dominant classes. When she got to college, her English just was not good enough.
“This is where community college came in,” Estrella explains. “I had to start taking the basic courses no one wants to take – basic writing, reading, then college writing, until my English improved considerably.” While she was at community college however, she was also working and taking care of a baby – she and her husband of 20 years got married and started a family early. It was a lot of juggling, but Estrella says, you just do it.
“I just made it work. At community college, you can go in the evenings, or on Saturday; you just use the flexibility, and you make it happen.”
Two years later, Estrella graduated and got a full scholarship to attend the four-year Merrimack College. The young mother studied business administration and accounting, and after graduation she found good work in several accounting firms. Her dream, however, was to go to law school.
“I just felt I was born to do law. I also felt it was a way to give back to my community,” says the attorney. Estrella attended law school, and fulfilled her dream of becoming an attorney, eventually opening her own practice to serve bilingual clients.
Years later, the Latina immigrant who “failed” at her first college attempt but regained her education foothold through community college was invited by the very same place to become a trustee.
“It was fantastic,” Estrella recalls. ”Northern Essex Community College was the place where I was able to make that transition, learn English, and not fall behind,” she adds. “Without an education, what else is out there?”
Estrella is now in the “six figure” bracket through her successful legal practice. Yet the well-regarded attorney and NECC Trustee says she never misses an opportunity to go talk to high school students about the importance of pursuing higher education. ”My career – and the satisfaction I derive from my life – did not just happen,” Estrella says.
“You can’t just sit home and pretend things are going to happen; it takes sacrifice and hard work,” she adds.
Estrella failed in her first attempt at college, started a family at a fairly young age and overcame language barriers. A couple of decades later, her first son is off to college, and she has done well, not only financially but as a Latina who “gives back” and is involved in her community.
Her advice? “No matter how hard it is, you need to get an education. Had I not obtained an education, none of this would have happened,” she says. “I am humble about that, and I do not forget.”