Resilience, Authenticity, and Gratitude: From South America to Duke Business School

Mary Fernandez stands in front of a counter and a large CISCO sign.

Resilience, Authenticity, and Gratitude: From South America to Duke Business School

I had a somewhat typical childhood growing up in Cartagena, Columbia, a port city on the Caribbean Sea, except that I was not allowed to attend school because of my blindness.

I would yearningly watch my sighted brother get on the bus and attend school every day. Instead of growing resentful, however, I grew motivated. And as I sit here today, I can proudly say that I’ve already had a successful professional career and am expanding my horizons as I pursue my MBA from a top university.

This Hispanic Heritage Month, I want to reflect on the essential factors that continue to help me along my journey. First is my mother, who not only encouraged me but also made many sacrifices. Second are the role models and mentors, both in the Federation and others I’ve met, who continue to demonstrate what is possible regardless of my disability. And third are the values of resilience, authenticity, and gratitude.

While attaining my MBA from Duke has and will continue to afford me opportunities I could not have dreamed of, it has also stretched my resourcefulness and resilience. I’ve had to take a lot of classes that the world usually tells you blind people, particularly girls, aren’t good at, like stats, econ, accounting, and my absolute favorite, finance. I also went through my first two quarters essentially with no accessible materials. There was also the challenge of getting through recruiting season when about a hundred employers visit campus to network with students and hire interns. If standing out was the goal, at least my being blind helped with that part.

I continue to push forward. It comes down to resilience which, for me, isn’t lack of failure—it’s being able to fail over and over and get back up. Resilience can’t be taught. I believe, rather, that it is something we develop. And if I know one thing about immigrants, it’s that we are very resilient.

Mary Fernandez sits and smiles while holding a Cisco branded cup.Three months after recruiting season started, and several failed interviews later, I finally received and accepted an internship offer with Cisco on their global Talent Brand team. The Cisco culture is truly inclusive, and the people are brilliant, welcoming, and warm, a combination that is hard to find.

Unfortunately, disabled Latina women are typically underestimated, particularly in professional settings. I’ve learned that in situations where my intersecting identities becomes a prominent feature, my authenticity is a strength. It is important to bring our true selves, values, and integrity to work. When we do this, we always find our best path forward. Also, do not ever allow anyone to make you the token “X.” Personally, I set limits around what I will and will not tolerate. At the same time, recognize and accept that you are representing others. If it’s inevitable that a story will be told about us, then we should make sure we create that story.

In closing, remember that we must be resilient. Embrace failure, because failure leads to resilience.

We must live authentically. Live our truth, and play to our strengths.

And we must find gratitude. I could not have gotten to where I am today without an army of supporters behind me and trailblazers before me. Gratitude engenders joy and confidence, so this Hispanic Heritage Month and always, hold it close to you. 

—Mary Fernandez