Samantha Barrera, Distinguished Senior award recipient, will graduate May 2022 with a Liberal Arts degree through NAU’s Personalized Learning program. She’s preparing to attend law school at the University of Arizona’s James E. Rogers College of Law with a generous scholarship.
Before starting college, Barrera competed as a powerlifter. She was lifting more than double her body weight. Each time, Barrera had to answer a question: “Can I lift this weight?” Beyond her physical strength, Barrera relied on her preparation and mental resolve. The same focus and determination that helped her succeed at powerlifting carried Barrera through NAU and on to law school.
Barrera didn’t plan on going to college in Arizona. Originally from the United Kingdom, she is now a US resident. However, when she first traveled to the Southwest, she just wanted to see the sights and then head off to a job in New Zealand. But Barrera met a man in Tucson, fell in love, and ended up getting married.
It was an abusive relationship. Barrera credits the support network she found in Tucson for helping her survive domestic violence. “All these people held me up when I didn’t believe in myself, didn’t believe I was worth it,” she says. “I was completely candid about what he did, but I was still convinced that it was my fault.”
She shares this part of her story because it changed her trajectory, and because she wants to empower other women. “What happened to me, in my experiences of domestic violence, is a huge motivating factor of what led me to law school,” Barrera says. “Domestic violence is not talked about enough. I think it’s something that a lot of women experience and maybe don’t even realize they’re experiencing.”
After her marriage ended and she went through a domestic violence trial, Barrera had to find out who she was again. “I was very academically driven and motivated, and I had nothing but the world in front of me, and then it just all came crashing down within a matter of eight or nine months,” she says. “I completely lost who I was.” With the help of several non-profit domestic abuse agencies and a strong social network, Barrera slowly began to regain her sense of self. This was when she became a powerlifter. To Samantha, lifting helped her start taking care of herself after experiencing domestic violence.
Charting a new path
Barrera remarried and became a mother to two children. After the birth of her second child, she started to think about what she wanted to do next. “I thought, ‘You’re going to blink and you’re going to be 30 and then 40, then 50,’” Barrera says. “You want your children to follow their ambitions and pursue their absolute best selves, but you yourself haven’t done that.”
Barrera asked herself what she would want to do if nothing was holding her back. Her answer: “I’d be a lawyer.” Her husband and friends supported her goal, but as a stay-at-home mother of two young children, the challenge was finding the most time- and cost-effective path to law school.
She started with an online associate degree in liberal arts at Pima Community College (PCC), and heard about NAU’s online Personalized Learning (PL) program through her PCC advisor. “Personalized Learning has been very valuable for me because it was extremely cost effective and allowed me to streamline my courses,” she says. “I could accelerate every class and work as fast as I wanted.”
Jayme Davis, an Assistant Clinical Professor in the PL program, got to know Barrera by serving as her mentor. “She is a great example for why we have the program,” Davis says. “We want to make education accessible for those who don’t have the luxury of being on campus, those who might have to get up in the middle of the night to type in an essay after the kids are asleep. That’s why we have the program.”
All told, it took Barrera 15 months to complete her associate and bachelor’s degrees, study for the GRE, and be accepted to law school. She used the flexibility of the PL program to her full advantage to work through the courses at her fast pace. While at school Barrera flourished. At PCC she presented “The Sexualization of Women Across Social Media and its Impact on Women” at an undergraduate research symposium, published a poem called “The Book of Life” in the literary magazine SandScript, and was awarded the PCC Library Research Award for two consecutive years for her research on the death penalty. At NAU she won the Samuel Larue Finley humor writing contest for her essay, “A Day in the Life.”
These achievements took focus, planning, and long nights. Even now, she reads law books while her children are sleeping to get a head start on her upcoming coursework. Barrera says earning her degree while raising two kids was incredibly hard, but enjoyable at the same time. “I really enjoy writing, so that was the beauty of it because the Liberal Arts degree is very writing intensive,” she says. “I love writing and thinking critically and analytically.”
Reaching the destination
Barrera’s goal is to be a criminal prosecutor. Remembering her experiences in the courtroom during her domestic abuse trial, she hopes to pay it forward. As she puts it: “I just want to have the opportunity to contribute positively to the reformation of the criminal justice system here in America.”
Davis, her mentor at NAU, says Barrera is continuing to do some heavy lifting, both literally and figuratively. “When Samantha was at her lowest point, she decided to get into powerlifting,” Davis says. “Samantha’s situation could have gone south really quickly, and instead, she found a creative and clever way to adapt and turn it into a healthy piece of her personal evolution, growth, and development.”
For Barrera, everything from powerlifting to getting into law school is about commitment. “Growth is what happens when you apply yourself, and I guess that’s the core of what I’m proud of,” she says. “And I think that’s all you can ask for yourself—if you apply yourself, everything else falls into place.”