Success means different things to different people, but most can agree that providing a safe and happy home for yourself, your family, and your community are at the top of the list. For Whatcom County residents Kulia and Virginia González, their paths started in two very different places, and have traveled through unusual spaces, but ultimately led them to a happy — and undoubtedly successful — life together.

Virginia spent her childhood in Everson and Sumas and graduated from Nooksack Valley High School. Kulia is originally from Hawai’i, but now calls Whatcom County home — and not just because she happens to live here. “I actually love it here way more than Hawai’i,” she says. “People don’t get that, but I love the seasons, I like the smaller town aspect. And we’ve built a lot of great relationships here.”

Before the two women had met, Virginia and her three sons left the mainland and moved to Hawai’i in 2010, where she took a job at a small local bank. What she didn’t know at the time was that she was stepping into much more than an entry-level professional position. “Shortly after a promotion to a different branch, Kulia was also promoted. Everyone knew her except me, and the manager held a meeting so she could introduce herself to us and we could do the same,” Virginia recalls. “When I introduced myself, Kulia made this face that stuck out to me, and was intriguing. We became best friends before I realized I loved her.”

Completing degrees has allowed both women to climb further up the corporate ladder, and bring their unique experiences along with them. Photo courtesy Virginia and Kulia González

In 2012, Virginia moved herself and her sons back to Whatcom County, and Kulia joined them two months later. They named their new, temporary home the Ten Step Duplex. “It was this little two-bedroom with one bathroom. Wherever you were in there, you could get anywhere else within 10 steps. The five of us lived there for three years, saving to buy our first house. Five occupants, one toilet,” she says with a smile. “One.”

As different as their childhoods were, they also shared some similarities. One of those parallels later turned into a roadblock, but both were determined to transform it into a big step up. “We both went to college right after high school, and we both dropped out for different reasons,” says Kulia. Living in such a tiny space fueled their motivation to provide more for the boys. “In 2014 I joined the commercial team at Peoples Bank and my manager there saw something in me. He asked if I ever thought about finishing my degree, since [not having one] was going to hold me back. I talked to a former manager, and she told me about WGU. I was pretty scared to start again, but also didn’t want to fail again.”

A desire to provide a safe and nurturing home for their boys inspired “Vee” and “Ku” to finally complete their college degrees. Photo courtesy Virginia and Kulia González

Western Governors University was created in 1997 by a group of governors from across the western half of the United States. It blends the flexibility of online learning with a “competency-based” learning style, which focuses far more on creating new abilities than it does on attendance and homework.

Because they could work through at their own pace, the opportunity was too good to pass up. “It takes away the driving, the parking, that whole thing is eliminated,” says Kulia. “I was working from eight to five Monday through Friday, so I loved doing all my studying on the weekend. I would do eight hours Saturday and Sunday, and just bang it out. That’s what worked for me.”

Virginia’s tack was different. “That didn’t work for me,” she says. “I would do an hour each night, and then do tests on weekends. That was much more reasonable for me, because I couldn’t give it eight hours mentally.” By working on her bachelor’s degree at her own pace, Virginia found she was confident enough to continue on to a master’s degree in Education, while Kulia earned a Master of Business Administration.

With degrees in hand, the plan was to move up the professional ladder in Hawai’i, and eventually retire there. And they thought maybe they could hide out from the global pandemic that was just starting to take shape. “We had done everything that we had set as goals, so we packed up and moved in July of 2020 thinking COVID would be done soon,” Virginia says. “Moving to Hawai’i — which was locked up way tighter than the rest of the U.S. — was rough. We both found amazing jobs right away, but socially it was tough.”

Although they kept different schedules and interacted with instructors and mentors in different ways, both women were able to successfully dedicate themselves to higher education. Photo courtesy Virginia and Kulia González

Then, while weathering the storm that affected us all, Kulia was wooed back to Whatcom County by a job offer from SaviBank. “We were in Hawai’i, committed to rebuilding our life, when a life-changing opportunity was presented to our family we could not say no to,” says Virginia. “We said yes and moved back.”

Kulia stepped into a commercial loan officer/vice president role for SaviBank’s Bellingham team. “That alone is a great opportunity but there was more to it that swayed me over,” Kulia says, but they wanted me to be a part of implementing  process improvements, as well. They made me feel I had a voice, could create positive change, and would be a valued asset to the SaviBank team.”

Kulia credits her new opportunities to her master’s degree, and how it changed the attitudes of the people around her. “I had always been able to do that work, but I wasn’t given the opportunity until I had my degree,” she says. “My opinion is valued a bit more, and it’s opened a lot of other doors from higher ups wanting to know what I think.”

The changes they have seen at work have had a positive impact on the relationships they maintain in their personal lives, as well. As the director of human resources for the Boys and Girls Clubs of Whatcom County, Virginia has had time to evaluate her position and her focus as a Mexican woman in a professional role.

“Growing up, I didn’t know what HR was, and even now I hardly see any HR that looks like me,” she says. “So how do they advocate for someone if they’ve never experienced what some of your front like workers have experienced? I think that part of my drive to get my degrees was that I want to build a table that we can invite others to come to, and I don’t think that I could have done that as an HR coordinator or a generalist.”

Kulia shares her drive to make her world friendlier to people like her. “Statistically speaking, our cultures don’t have a lot of people included in senior leadership,” she says. “One of the main reasons I wanted to get to that level was to have the ability to open doors and career paths to people who might not have known they were available to them. I’m proud of us, that we did what we did.”

And Virginia agrees. “It sounds cliche to say that if we can do this, anyone can do this. But I firmly believe that.”

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