In 1983, on the day after Christmas, Cynthia Gil’s father left her family’s Portage, Ill., home. He never returned. “For two weeks, we thought he was dead,” said Gil, who was 9.
“We had no idea what happened to him,” said her sister, Mary Gil-Guerrero, who was 11.
Their father eventually separated from their mother and moved to east Chicago. Their mother struggled for several years as a single parent with two preteen daughters and two toddler sons, still in diapers, they said.
“It was tough for her, with four kids and no career or higher education,” Gil-Guerrero said.
It also was tough on the two sisters, who stuck together during the difficult times.
They remember walking to the corner store with their little brothers in tow, with just enough food stamps for a few necessities and some penny candy. “We were on welfare, and we knew exactly what poverty felt like,” Gil said.
The sisters recall coming home from school one day and finding all their belongings on the front lawn. “Evicted again,” Gil said.
“That was our reality back then,” Gil-Guerrero said. “But my mother did whatever she could to keep a roof over our heads.”
They both recall when their mother’s boyfriend at the time refused to drive the family to a roller skating rink. Their mother walked there with all four kids in tow. “She was stuck,” Gil said. “And I told myself back then that I never wanted to be stuck like that.”
The girls attended six elementary schools and three junior high schools before getting into high school. When the girls were 12 and 14, their mother was overwhelmed with it all. She took them to their father’s home.
“It was a basement apartment with one bedroom, a tiny bathroom with no shower, and roaches everywhere,” Gil said.
“We called it the dungeon,” Gil-Guerrero said.
They had to transfer schools, yet again.
“If you’re familiar with the area, you know the streets are dangerous and the public education is questionable,” Gil said.
Despite all this, the sisters remembered what their grandfather told them again and again: that they must attend college and earn a degree, becoming the first in their family to do so. “Even though he never told us how to pay for it or how to pull it off,” Gil joked.
The sisters graduated from high school and enrolled at state colleges, Gil at Purdue University in West Lafayette and Purdue University Calumet, where she earned a degree in education. And Gil-Guerrero at Indiana University, then at PUC, where she earned a nursing degree.
Along the way, they started their own families while juggling full-time jobs and similar struggles as their mother, though never in such poverty. “It was tough at times,” said Gil, 42, who now lives in a beautiful home in Schererville, Ind.
“There were times when we weren’t sure if we would get through it,” said Gil-Guerrero, 45, of Crown Point, Ind.
They both also went on to eventually earn a master’s degree at the same school, Indiana Wesleyan University in Merrillville.
Their little brothers, Daniel and Richard Gil, followed in their steps to attend Purdue University, earning degrees as constructional engineers before also earning MBA degrees at Indiana Wesleyan University.
“My brothers are amazing husbands and awesome fathers, despite not having a positive male role model in their lives,” said Cynthia Gil, an English teacher and mother of two.
“We were four kids, all raised by a single mother on government assistance, yet we beat all the odds,” said Gil-Guerrero, a mother of three who oversees a chain of dialysis clinics across Northwest Indiana for American Renal Associates.
For a graduate presentation last year at Indiana Wesleyan University, Gil spoke about situational and generational poverty as part of her 65-page thesis on poverty and immigration, including her own experiences.
The university’s dean of students, Jenny McGill, was in the audience.
She said she was astonished by the siblings’ grit and determination. So much so that she encouraged the siblings to share their story publicly as part of the university’s “Shine Bright” campaign. The siblings shot a commercial for IWU discussing their degrees and their family’s commitment to each other, and to higher education.
“We decided as kids that we would fight for a brighter, better future,” Gil said in the commercial.
“Together, we set expectations, and together we persevered,” Gil-Guerrero said, noting that her parents are still part of her life.
Every school day, Gil drives her 16-year-old daughter to Bishop Noll Institute in Hammond. During the long, tedious trip, Gil often shares with her the same message she was told by her grandfather: College is a certainty, not an option.
“She doesn’t have the same struggles that I had as a teenage girl, but I try to make her understand the value of education,” Gil said. “I expect her to get straight A’s, and she does. Too many times we second guess ourselves because we think it’s impossible, when really it means that I’m possible.”