Perhaps no one — least of all Debra Duardo herself — could have predicted that one day she’d earn three degrees from UCLA and, after serving two decades in the Los Angeles Unified School District, be named superintendent of the Los Angeles County Office of Education (LACOE). Now 53, Duardo, the daughter of Mexican immigrants, was a high school dropout at age 15. She was working at Kentucky Fried Chicken when she eloped with her beau, with no intention of continuing her education.

But things changed when she gave birth to a severely disabled child and, later, three more children. After restarting her education in her late 20s at Los Angeles Community College, she earned a bachelor’s, a master’s of social work and a doctorate of education at UCLA. In May, she assumed her position at LACOE, which serves the 80 school districts in Los Angeles County. Married for 15 years to retired LAUSD principal Art Duardo, she oversees a blended family of seven children and seven grandchildren.

What was your childhood like?

I was born and grew up in Hollywood, the fourth of five children. My father was a dishwasher and my mother a waitress. There was lots of love and compassion, but my parents never finished school, so they didn’t instill in us — especially the girls — the importance of getting an education. The expectation was that we’d get married and be mothers. I was 13 when I met the man whom I would marry two years later. My father was very strict, and he basically said, no, you cannot date him. But being young and stubborn and in love, I decided to just go off and marry him. We eloped to Las Vegas when I was 15.

What was the turning point that got you back to school?

My son, Bruce, was born with spina bifida, a neural tube defect. The first year he had about 10 operations. I realized as I was interacting with all these medical professionals and doctors that I needed to know more. I didn’t understand the difference between a urologist and a neurologist! That’s what motivated me to go back to school.

That couldn’t have been easy.

It wasn’t. I had no credits from high school — I had dropped out after about a week. While working full-time and taking care of Bruce and my other children, I took remedial classes at Los Angeles Community College. It took about 10 years to get enough credits to transfer to UCLA.

Eventually you worked with kids who faced some of the same obstacles you had?

Before I got into education, I worked for 10 years at the Los Angeles Commission on Assaults Against Women. I met many students and families who had a lot of challenges. And when I did my internship for my master’s in social welfare at UCLA, I started working with students who were at risk of not finishing school.

How was that?

I was placed at a school where I worked with students with attendance problems. I’d knock on their doors and ask why they weren’t in school. I talked with children who were already parents or staying home to take care of relatives or who needed to work for the family. There were also students who were dealing with issues of domestic violence in their families or their own relationships. They were good people who wanted to do something differently. They just needed some support.

Is that why you became an attendance counselor at LAUSD?

Yes. For about three years, I worked with at-risk students and their families to find ways to engage students who weren’t coming to school. For example, at an East Los Angeles high school, I ran a group for teen mothers, sharing my story and helping them see that if I could change my life by getting an education, they could too.

How was it to work full-time, go to school and raise four children?

I had a lot of support from my parents and siblings. But sometimes I think back and wonder, how in the world did Ido all that? It was exhausting.

What kept you going?

Any time my son was back in the hospital or I had other challenges, I’d put in my head that there will always be challenges, but the only way I’m going to improve my life and make a better life for my children is to finish school. You do what you need to do, one step at a time.

What do you say to someone who’s thinking about dropping out of school?

I tell them that staying in school and getting a degree opens up opportunities they won’t otherwise have — whether it’s making more money or doing something they love to do, or just feeling good about themselves.

Anything else?

A lot of times I’ve asked kids: Are you happy with your current situation? In the city of Los Angeles, something like one out of five youths ages 16 to 24 are out of school and out of work. So we have a lot of kids who are sitting at home doing nothing. They want to be engaged in something, but they don’t know how to do it or feel they can’t. I asked them to imagine, if they could do anything they wanted to do, what would that be? Because if they can dream it, and if they’re willing to do the hard work, anything is possible.

What are some ways they can finish their education?

A: It’s not one-size-fits-all. You don’t have to attend a comprehensive high school. You can do a program online or go to a community college or an alternative or a charter school. It’s a matter of figuring out the best fit.

What legacy would you like to leave?

A: I’d like people to know they can make a difference in the life of a young person by having genuine compassion and concern and being willing to listen. It’s a challenge, because we have a lot of students who have experienced some kind of trauma — homelessness, or being taken from their homes and put in the foster youth system. We have students who are challenged with a language or a disability. But children are really resilient. If there are people who believe in them, and get them to believe in themselves, they’ll never fail to amaze us.

Read the entire Q&A in the October 2016 issue of UCLA Magazine.