SAN FRANCISCO (KTVU) - A Bay Area mother is being applauded for her strength, perseverance, fighting spirit and for serving as an inspiration for those who have ever dared to go after a dream despite the obstacles and doubters in their path.
Last month, Kelly Barnett received her Juris Doctor degree from Golden Gate University School of Law in San Francisco. And she marked the occasion with a post in which she broke down her four year journey in numbers. Her message was simple but packed a punch and said it all:
"$115,000 of law school debt
1460 days as a JD student
636 Night Classes
2 times I cried
1 juris doctorate
Along with her caption, she included a moving photo of herself in cap and gown, walking hand in hand with her 7-year-old son as she crossed the stage to receive her degree.
She posted the message on her own Facebook page, as well as on the Pantsuit Nation Facebook group page, where she's received more than 82K likes.
In the post, the 36-year-old single mother explained that her son was 3 years old when she became a law student. She said she faced a lot of doubt from people who told her it would be too difficult to juggle it all as she raised a child on her own.
But it turns out, it was her son who inspired her to go after her dreams.
"I have been underestimated a lot in my career and I was just tired of being seen as less than. It’s something I have struggled with my entire adult life," Barnett explained to KTVU, "and having Milo gave me a new sense of strength that I hadn't tapped into before."
In fact, it was one of those moments of being underestimated that sealed her decision to pursue a law degree.
Barnett said it came during a telephone conversation with a recruiter in San Francisco, where she had been working in the tech industry. In college, she had studied constitutional law and had always been interested in making a move into a career in law. "I asked about potential placement in a law firm as a paralegal or assistant," she recalled.
The recruiter's hurtful response she said, echoed a sentiment she'd heard before, from others who questioned what she was capable of. "She said she didn’t think I was polished enough. She said I didn’t have the personality for a law firm, and that I should stick with my current track of being an operations assistant," Barnett said. "I was raising my son on my own in one of the most expensive places in the world," she added.
The single mom said at first she was washed over with shame and embarrassment. But then she got mad, and the words from the recruiter fueled her to take action. She promptly went online and registered to take the LSAT.
After taking the exam, she initially held off on telling anyone she applied to law school. "I was afraid to get denied," Barnett said. "So, my fear of publicly failing was big."
But once she got in, failure was not an option.
While attending school, she juggled a full time job at Rigetti Quantum Computing in Berkeley and would later take on an internship at the Women’s Employment Rights clinic in San Francisco.
Barnett said that when she set out to get her law degree she knew it would be difficult but acknowledged that she underestimated just how grueling the road would be, describing the experience as humbling.
"... everyone said it would be hard, but I totally took that with a grain of salt. I figured that I had already been through the ringer and survived, so how much harder could law school be? I was SUPER wrong," Barnett exclaimed.
Still, she managed to get by with breaking down into tears only twice, though she admitted that hardly a day went by that she didn't feel extremely overwhelmed.
She said the extensive amount of reading, the fierce competition from classmates -- all made it extremely hard to get through. But without a doubt, the most difficult part, she said, was being away from her son.
"I would be gone at least 3 nights a week for class after working a full day, and he would have been asleep for a couple of hours. I would bring him into my bed with me during the first couple of years so we could at least be physically near each other," she recalled, adding she felt a lot of guilt for all that he had to endure.
"I was a really dedicated mom, so letting Milo down or feeling like he was paying most of the price for my adventure was really the hardest part," Barnett expressed.
But ultimately, she knew she had to do this for not only herself but for her son, to whom she wanted to demonstrate the importance of education and working hard to accomplish your goals.
Both of these things, she said, she watched her parents prioritize.
"My mom and dad really demonstrated an amazing work ethic. My dad was a school teacher and my mom had two jobs at one point to help support my four younger sisters and me," Barnett explained.
She said they worked hard and showed her and her siblings the importance of giving back, noting that her dad is a public school teacher in the hardest-hit areas of Fresno.
With a law degree in hand, Barnett is now tackling her next goal: to pass the California Bar Exam, as she considers a career in the criminal justice system. She also hopes she can use her degree to help advocate for sex workers' rights, noting that for a period in her life, she supported herself working as a dancer in clubs in Las Vegas and San Francisco.
"I know how terrible it can be to legitimize yourself in that industry, so I would love a chance to advocate for change on the sex worker front," Barnett explained.
It was a long road getting to this place, and she acknowledged she couldn't do it without the unwavering support of her community of friends and family who believed in her.
People who have read her post have praised her for her tenacity and for accomplisments.
"You’re an amazing woman and a remarkable mother ... I believe you will go on to become what you set out to be at the start of this journey: a much needed voice for those seeking a person who actually listens," Cathleen Morris wrote on Facebook, "A woman who knows the law and is strong, compassionate, honest, wise and just is the kind of lawyer our country needs. I salute you and your son, your family and friends — well done!"
"You are a star!" commented Tom Bartlett-Svehla. "My law school heroes were the single Moms who worked, took care of their children, and attended school. By themselves, each is hard work. Together, Wow!"
As for the newly minted law grad, she is taking in and loving all of the time she can finally spend with her son.
"Now I’m home and making dinner with Milo every night. It’s been so great to read, do his bedtime routine with him, and wake up refreshed for him," the mom said.
And as she noted, as hard as it was, it was with zero regrets that she took on the challenge and accomplished what she set out to do -- zero regrets and an unlimited amount of appreciation.
In her post, Barnett thanked all those who helped her get here, including the naysayers. "People said I shouldn't do it. They said being a single mom would be too much," she said, "I thank them for their challenge to me."
And then she acknowledged all moms and the strength they draw from those they are raising.
"Thank you to all of the mothers," Barnett said, "who showed me that loving your children was the foundation for doing incredible things."