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President's Medal/Dean’s Award 2023 – Myriad, serious challenges did not stop Norma Sanchez

Norma Sanchez, who will graduate with honors, is recipient of the President's Medal of Honor and Dean's Award for the College of Business. (Sacramento State/Andrea Price)

Norma Sanchez, a 2023 President’s Medal of Honor recipient, wanted to go to school.

Her family had recently immigrated from Jalisco, Mexico, to Modesto, and she didn’t speak English.

The 16-year-old tried telling her mom she could go to high school and still work the night shift – picking apricots from 7 p.m. to 2 a.m.

“I looked at my mom like a kid who wants candy, and she just shook her head and said, ‘We can’t afford to do that,’ ” Sanchez, now 38, said. “And that was the end of the conversation. It never came up again.”

Until one terrible night about five years later, when Sanchez fled her knife-wielding boyfriend with their 9-month-old baby.

“At that moment, I promised my daughter I would better myself so I could give her a better life,” Sanchez said.

Sanchez will graduate magna cum laude from Sacramento State with a bachelor's degree in International Business as the Dean’s Award recipient for the College of Business. She will be recognized along with other Deans’ Award honorees during Commencement May 19-21 at Golden 1 Center in downtown Sacramento. 

Deans’ Awards are given annually to seven outstanding graduating students, one for each of Sac State’s academic colleges. The President’s Medal of Honor is given to the University’s top graduate, and this year President Robert S. Nelsen selected two recipients.

“Norma’s perseverance and determination is at the heart of what it means to be a Hornet and an American,” Nelsen said. “She graduated with highest honors from Sac State, when she didn’t even have the benefit of high school, excelling academically. I can’t wait (and neither can her daughter or her son) to see all that she will accomplish."

Sanchez spent her teenage years in Modesto, picking fruit and dehydrating tomatoes in large, un-air-conditioned warehouses during the height of the summer.

When she moved to a job sorting almonds, it was a step up. The rooms had fans and stools for the women to take turns sitting. There was even a microwave.

“We thought this was heaven,” Sanchez recalled, saying she still longed to get an education.

The business owner often stopped to talk to the workers, telling Sanchez she should go to school and learn English.

So, she did.

“I hope my story will make other people want to take opportunities for themselves. I think Sac State is the right place to do that." -- Norma Sanchez, recipient of the President's Award and Dean’s Award for the College of Business

“Me and my sister signed up to go to classes in the afternoon,” she said. “It took many years to learn the language, but I would take every single opportunity to learn anything new.”

Sanchez was 21 when she gave birth to her daughter, Kassandra.

“My boyfriend was abusive from the beginning, and every time, it just got worse and worse. There was one terrible night when he tried to kill me,” Sanchez said.

“I was holding my daughter, and he had a knife directly over my heart. I thought, ‘This is the end of my life. He’s going to kill me and my daughter.’ I closed my eyes, and I just remember the sound when the knife fell on the floor.”

She eventually escaped, driving over sidewalks and lawns with her daughter in her arms, before ending up at the grocery store where she worked.

“I have gone down a different path because of the promise I made my daughter,” Sanchez said.

She worked her way up in the almond industry, becoming a manager and earning certifications for food safety and quality control. She married and had a son, Juni.

Two years later, Sanchez applied for a director’s position at work.

“My boss told me, ‘You do qualify, but you don’t have a degree, and I can’t help you anymore with that,’ ” Sanchez said. “I understood, because there were times when other people would say, ‘She doesn’t even have a high school degree.’ ”

Sanchez signed up for adult education classes and, despite learning she had dyslexia, she earned her high school equivalency certificate in three months.

Encouraged by her teachers and counselor at the adult school, she enrolled at Gavilan College in the fall of 2018, where she volunteered as a student leader in the TRIO program, which supports students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

“Norma is exceptional,” Business Lecturer Joseph VanVo said. “Her parents never wanted her to go to school, period. Norma has been working, going to school, and looking after her two kids, as well as volunteering her time for worthy causes.

“She has overcome personal issues against all odds, and is working to build a bright future for herself and her family.”

Sanchez also helped start the Rotaract Club, organizing donation drives for people in need during the COVID-19 pandemic, and volunteered with another program helping low-income people file their taxes.

But when she tried to explain her decision to go to college to her parents, they didn’t understand.

“They just grew up in a very different world, very conservative,” Sanchez said. “They said, ‘You have a good job. Why are you leaving something secure for nothing?’ But I knew I would have more opportunities.”

When it was time to transfer to a four-year university, Sanchez was accepted to seven schools and waitlisted at UC Berkeley.

She chose Sac State because she was invited to be part of the Business Honors program, which is cohort-based. For two years, the same group of 22 students take all the required courses together.

“It’s an intensive program, but it has been a blessing for me because it has given me so much confidence that I can do so much more than I thought I could,” said Sanchez, who also utilized services on campus for students with dyslexia.

“It has given me confidence about my English, and it has given me confidence about feeling like a smart woman,” she said. “The teachers have high expectations for us, but they’re also very caring about each individual and who we’re going to become and how we’re going to be the future leaders of Sacramento.”

Sanchez does food safety consulting work and said she hopes to work in Sacramento after graduation. 

“I hope my story will make other people want to take opportunities for themselves,” Sanchez said. “I think Sac State is the right place to do that.

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About Jennifer K. Morita

Jennifer K. Morita joined Sacramento State in 2022. A former newspaper reporter for the Sacramento Bee, she spent several years juggling freelance writing with being a mom. When she isn’t chauffeuring her two daughters, she enjoys reading mysteries, experimenting with recipes, and Zumba.

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