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Life Stories by Jill

Sharing stories is powerful. They can connect and inspire, empower and inform. They have the potential to expand someone’s perspective or unite different people in a common experience. Barclays’ Life Stories gives our colleagues the chance to share their experiences and open up their worlds. This is Jill’s story, and her journey to becoming a lawyer in her forties.

“I felt like an outsider growing up because I lived in the projects (subsidized housing development), in Queens, New York. I didn’t tell anyone where I lived because I was embarrassed. It was dangerous, we had bars on the windows, and I wasn’t allowed to play outside alone. Sometimes there was no heat or hot water. The paint was peeling. No matter how much we cleaned and how often the exterminator came, there were roaches and mice.

All of that certainly impacted my self-worth and confidence. I really hated it, but I didn’t think I deserved any better. Everything we had was handed down: furniture, clothes, sheets, towels. There’s a lot of shame associated with growing up in the projects and as an only child it was very lonely. I couldn’t see myself getting out of there and I definitely didn’t think I would amount to anything.

I did have dreams though. I loved baseball. But I also wanted to be an actor. I thought I’d be Annie on Broadway – I loved musical theatre. I really wanted to move to Manhattan too. I thought if I could just get there, I’d be set. I secretly applied to performing arts high schools there, but my parents wouldn’t let me take the subway alone so I couldn’t go to any of the auditions.

When I finally did make it to Manhattan and went to college (I got a partial scholarship and took out loans for the rest), I took full advantage of being in the city. But my studies suffered. I had done well academically in high school – I’d even skipped eighth grade – but I found my Accounting major was so much harder than expected, and rather than applying myself, I switched off. I was kicked out after two semesters. No credits, no job and a student loan to pay back.

Working full time and going back to school

When I moved back home I went to work full time in the hospitality industry but then a friend got me a job as a receptionist in an investment bank on Wall Street. I didn’t even know what an investment bank was. I thought there would be bank tellers behind bullet-proof glass like in Queens.  It was quite a culture shock.  After some time, I worked my way up to a secretarial position. I also started taking classes at community college in the evenings. I built up a few credits here and there and during my twenties I worked as an assistant in a few different investment banks.

It was in my thirties, working in the Investment Banking Division at Barclays, that I realized I wanted more and that I had to get serious about it. I saw others around me who had a degree, and I knew I was smart enough to earn one. My family and friends were so supportive, and I couldn’t have done it without them. When I shared my plans with colleagues at Barclays, everyone was really excited and encouraging of my ambition, and said: “You can do anything you put your mind to.”

I wanted something that nobody could take away from me. I wanted to be able to afford a nice, safe place to live and have clothes that weren’t hand-me-downs. I felt not having a degree would potentially hold me back from that.

It took me seven years to finish my undergrad part-time at night and then four more years to complete law school (also part-time at night). Balancing work, family and school was very challenging. I had to learn how to best utilize my time between the three. My family were proud of me, but they were very aware of my absence – especially when I was attending law school. I’d go directly from the office to class and wouldn’t be home until 11pm most evenings. Weekends were a blur too – just a series of waking up, studying, and repeating for four years.

Achieving what I put my mind to

But it’s all been worth it. Because now I’m a lawyer in the Investment Banking Legal Division at Barclays. It’s amazing – sometimes I still can’t believe it. I’m part of a dream team and I’m also the Chair of the Legal Americas Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Committee. I know that being a lawyer at an investment bank wasn’t necessarily going to change the world but I hope I am making a positive impact through the work I do in the DEI space.

And I’ve learned so much on this journey. I learned that hard work pays off – I made a plan, set goals and stuck to them. I learned that I really could accomplish what I wanted if I stay focused. And I also learned to ask for help and lean on my family, friends and colleagues.

Based on where I grew up, I certainly wouldn’t have pictured myself as someone who could work in investment banking. I’m just a kid from the projects, but now I’m a lawyer, a wife and mother, and I own a home – all things I didn’t think I could accomplish. Coming from the projects taught me resilience and grit and it motivated me.  As cheesy as it sounds, my story is an example that you really can do anything. You can go anywhere and be anything you want.

If you’re asking yourself if you should go back to school – just do it. Start with one class and expand from there. It will be hard, but it will also be great. You’ll learn a lot about yourself, the world and you’ll meet so many new and different people. And you’ll also feel so good about yourself and what you’ve achieved. Do it. Say yes.”

Jill, Lawyer, Investment Banking Legal Americas, Barclays Capital Inc.