When 24-year-old Julissa Muniz received her acceptance letter to Harvard’s Graduate School of Education in March, her first thought was that she couldn’t wait to tell her 7-year-old daughter.
“I remember jumping up and down and tears were running down my face,” the San Ysidro, California, woman tells PEOPLE. “I thought I have to get home, I have to tell Amaris.”
As a high school sophomore, Muniz was class president and a varsity basketball player when she discovered that she was six and a half months pregnant.
“I was very fortunate that I didn’t have a lot of morning sickness,” she explains, adding that as a basketball player, “I was conditioning every day, getting ready for the season, playing games – so I wasn’t gaining weight either.”
After finding out that she was pregnant in March, the then 16-year-old gave birth to a daughter, Amaris, in June, and returned to school a month later. Her mother, who was unemployed, stayed home with Amaris while Muniz was in school and at work.
“I started working when Amaris was 3 months old, and since then, I’ve always worked because my mom wasn’t working and I couldn t depend on Amaris’ dad,” Muniz tells PEOPLE.
The teen juggled AP classes, basketball practice and working nearly full-time – 24 to 30 hours per week – to support her family.
“Right after school I’d go into work and on weekends, I’d work an 8-hour shift and then go home and be with Amaris,” Muniz says.
Despite her demanding schedule, Muniz became the first person in her family to graduate high school. The young mother earned a 4.6 GPA and was accepted to eight universities, ultimately choosing University of California, Berkeley. Thanks to the school’s Student Parent Association for Recruitment and Retention (SPARR) program for student parents, the young mother received financial aid, housing and childcare.
But beginning college as a freshman with a 2-year-old was far from easy.
“I wasn’t quite a freshman because I had my daughter, but I was still 18, so I couldn’t relate to some of the student parents because I was their kid’s age,” Muniz tells PEOPLE.
Eventually, the teen found her community among student parents and freshman alike – trading babysitting with other parents and bringing Amaris with her to study groups.
“Because in the college setting it’s very rare to see kids, people would be like, ‘Oh, my God, a baby!’ ” Muniz tells PEOPLE. “Everybody would be like, ‘Can I take her with me to get food?’ Amaris would come back with fries and goodies that everyone bought her with meal points.”
At a time when most teens are solely focused on themselves, Muniz was constantly putting her daughter’s needs before her own.
“I wanted her to have opportunities I didn’t, so she was in swim, basketball and hip-hop for a while,” Muniz tells PEOPLE. “In order to be able to pay for that, I had to work outside of school.”
The teen went to classes two days a week while Amaris was in school, and she worked three days a week and even found time to volunteer.
Muniz volunteered in the education departments of prisons and juvenile detention centers. The California mom calls the work that she did teaching GED classes and literacy education “very empowering.”
“A lot of the people I worked with at San Quentin were lifers. For a lot of these men, it was the first time in their lives that they were having positive education experiences,” Muniz says. Taking the time to sit with these men and teach them how to read and write, she says, “was beautiful to me.”
“To see that learning was an outlet for them and an outlet from their situation, I believe that is what education is supposed to be, but unfortunately it isn’t always experienced that way,” Muniz adds.
As a first-generation high school graduate, Muniz knows the importance of a positive educational experience.
“From a very young age, I had a lot of educators, a lot of people – both informally and formally – tell me that I was going to be somebody, that I was going to go to college,” she says.
However, as a young girl, she watched her two older brothers – both of whom dropped out of high school – have radically different experiences.
“One of them had a learning disability growing up. He had a very negative experience with education that ultimately led him in and out of juvenile hall,” she says.
Watching her brothers struggle and working with the prisoners inspired Muniz to pursue a path in education. That path ultimately led her to Harvard’s Graduate School of Education where she plans to earn her PhD and ultimately work in public policy to improve educational outcomes for underserved communities.
Muniz is quick to credit all of her success to her daughter, whom she calls “my biggest inspiration.”
“She was my home base, the one place I could always come back to whenever I was feeling overwhelmed or stress or doubting why I was doing what I was doing. I just had to look at her,” Muniz tells PEOPLE. “In many ways, I feel blessed that I had that – because my motivation was a walking and living thing.”
Muniz has created a GoFundMe page to help with the cost of Harvard tuition and living expenses for her and her daughter.