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San Joaquin Valley College Blog

Single mom makes family sacrifice pay off

October 9, 2014

SJVC Bakersfield Medical Office graduate Ruth BenitezRuth Benitez knew she was going to have to do something to make a better life for her two teenage sons, Freddy and Christopher. She had been working as a Benefits Specialist at Robert F. Kennedy Medical Plan for 16 years, but a divorce in 2010 created a new financial crisis for her small family.

“I had to better myself for my children,” says Ruth. She had checked out another local Bakersfield college and found that she would have to take a lot of general education classes before she could even begin to study her area of interest: Health care billing and coding. “I just wanted to get straight to it, and SJVC’s classes related to my career right away.”

Ruth enrolled in Bakersfield‘s Health Care Insurance Specialist (HCIS) program and began, what turned out to be, 14 very difficult months of a balancing act she was not sure she could maintain. She commuted from Tehachapi to school an hour and a half round-trip every day, while working full-time and caring for her boys. They also managed to move twice that first year.

“Sometimes I’d only get three or four hours of sleep at night,” says Ruth. “I’d wake up early and make breakfast for my boys and still had to be at school at 7:15 a.m. They would wait for me to get home at ten o’clock at night to have dinner.”

Ruth’s mom, Natividad, was worried it would be just too difficult for them all. “”She told me I wasn’t going to make it, that I had to take responsibility for my kids,” she says. “I told her I would graduate with honors.”

A couple of things kept Ruth pushing toward her goals.

Mercedes Farmer, Ruth’s immediate supervisor, gave her the image she strived to emulate. “Every time I would hear her speak professionally to a group I would think, ‘I’ve got to speak like her, act like her, in order to be someone,'” says Ruth. “I told her how much I looked up to her.”

Mercedes watched her protégé grow in her knowledge, poise and confidence. “When I got an A, she would post it on the fridge in the back,” Ruth admits.

Much to Ruth’s surprise, another gesture helped fuel her commitment to her HCIS program. “Other students in class started saying I was their role model,” says Ruth. “It made me feel good that they were looking up to me and made me feel I can’t quit.”

“Ruth set a very good example for her fellow classmates,” says instructor Michael Rugnao. “She was always very professional and pleasant in class.”

Graduation finally came last February, and Ruth made good on her promise to not only finish, but finish with honors. After the ceremony, she took great pride in placing her honors ribbon around her mom’s neck.

“She started crying,” says Ruth. “In my family, it is rare to have a college graduate. I am a single mom, and I made it!”

Waiting for Ruth was the job of her dreams offered by her extern site. She took that position, but just a few months later her mentor, Mercedes, was able to lure her back with a position and salary that promised an exciting future.

As a newly minted Benefits and Claims Specialist, Ruth spends about half of her time reviewing claims for fraud, inappropriate codes, payment inaccuracies and other improprieties. “Now I know the full spectrum of how the insurance world works,” says Ruth. “I am actually helping the Administrator with the Obama health care insurance plan, and it kind of feels special that they are including me in putting plans together.”

Ruth’s territory includes California, Oregon and Washington, where she visits companies and makes presentations to employees about how HMOs work for them. “What I learned at school opened me up to how to talk to the public,” says Ruth. “I’m more confident because I know what I’m talking about.”

Ruth is pretty content with her accomplishments – and is inspired to take her success even further. “I want to be the director of a billing or insurance department; that’s my goal,” she says. “And, I know that I need my Bachelor’s to do that.”

First, she is going to enjoy a little bit of life with her sons who have waited so patiently to have her back home.

“I promised Freddy I’d buy him a car when he was 18, but I didn’t,” says Ruth. “But, I did when he was 19.”

A few more soccer games, a few more moving boxes unpacked, and Ruth will be ready to push her limits again.

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