Top of the Class: Adversity, the Mother of Success

By Lenina Mortimer

Sheryll Pang is no stranger to hardship, but it’s adversity that has driven her to succeed.

Pang, 25 years old, says that at 16 her abusive stepfather kicked her out of their house. And three years later, she became a single mother.
“I was told I was stupid and that I’d never amount to anything,” she says. “I really didn’t think I would be able to go to college. I did not believe I had the mental capacity.”

Sheryll Pang with her son, Jayden

Sheryll Pang with her son, Jayden

She would never have guessed, just nine years ago, that in the spring of 2014 she would graduate from Baruch College summa cum laude with a degree in finance and investment.

“My life was a bit of mess and unstable before I had my son,” says Pang, who described her life back then as turbulent. She had a series of abusive relationships and worked dead-end retail jobs. But once Jayden, who is now 5 years old, was born her life took a different direction. “After I had him everything became 100 percent [clear] — I knew what I had to do and I wanted to give him a better life.

Jayden was only two months old when Pang enrolled at Queensborough Community College. It didn’t take long for her professors to take notice of her academic prowess. “QCC was a stepping stone to something bigger,” she says.  “I thought I was going to get an associate’s degree and maybe find a job on Craigslist. But my professors would reach out to me and tell me that I was capable of much more.”

With the encouragement of her professors, Pang applied to the New York Needs You fellowship — a career-development and leadership program at CUNY for students who are the first in their family to attend college. “When I learned about the program, I thought it was amazing.  It’s what I really needed,” says Pang, who was born in Singapore and raised in New Jersey.  “They give a $2,500 stipend but that’s not where the value is … it’s in the mentoring that helped to guide me through the college process.”

“She was doing well in school. But the NYNY network opened her up to new opportunities in finance that she hadn’t fully explored as an industry,” says chief program officer of NYNY, Marianna Tu. “She’s entrepreneurial in the way she shares her story. She has a strong sense of giving back to the students who share similar experiences,” says Tu.

While Pang’s studies at QCC boosted her confidence — she really found her stride at Baruch. “[At Baruch] I said, ‘I can do this. I’m going to work my way to the top.’” Pang became more active on campus and discovered the Starr Career Development Center’s Financial Leadership Program, which prepares students for careers at top financial institutions.

“I didn’t even know what finance was. But having mentors and joining these programs that guided me, helped me to identify what I wanted to do and what I could be good at,” says Pang, who was later admitted to the highly competitive Zicklin Undergraduate Honors Program.

“Sheryll stood out even among really smart students in terms of her ability to communicate and participate. We had Larry Zicklin as a guest lecturer and the students were intimidated. But not Sheryll, she had her hand in the air, asking really smart questions,” recalls marketing professor Gloria Thomas, who also serves as the director of the Zicklin Undergraduate Honors program.

“I love learning. I took school a lot more seriously, since I worked first and then went to college,” says Pang who started college three years after graduating from high school. Along with her major in finance Pang had a triple minor in economics, international business and advanced business analysis.

After her junior year, Pang was given an early job offer at the asset management firm BlackRock as a financial analyst.

“I believe that she has top management potential,” says Carol Gamm, an executive coach who mentored Pang for two years through Baruch’s Executive on Campus program.  “Through her life experience, I think she has developed a kind of street smarts. And that’s not something you can teach people.”

As a new graduate she has many plans, and among them is working with other single mothers to coach them to fulfill their potential.

“I really do want to inspire women. I want to show them that you’re not in it alone. A lot of people get embarrassed by the bad decisions they make,” says Pang, “but for me, I realize that I had to go through it to be who I am today. We’ve all gone through our own adversity, and it’s what you do about it that really matters.”