“There is no crying on the private wealth management floor”

February is only 28 days long and yet it feels like 34 days, and this winter has clearly already gone on for at least a year and a half, so I will take my good news and inspiring stories wherever I can find them, including from this Bloomberg Businessweek profile of Julissa Arce, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico who fought — and occasionally bluffed — her way up through the ranks at Goldman Sachs:

Arce was 11 when she moved to San Antonio from Mexico. Despite arriving with little English, she joined the basketball, softball, cross-country, and dance teams, the student council, a Renaissance club, and two honors societies within a few years. She’s still intense. She likes The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and How to Win Friends & Influence People and is eager to explain, without irony, why they’re illuminating. She does CrossFit and can hold 150 pounds behind her head. “You have to have a very A-type personality,” she says about weightlifting, sipping a beer in Ulysses, a bar three blocks south of Wall Street. “This workout — it’s not going to win. I’m going to win.”

She didn’t have to adjust to Goldman Sachs’s culture of undisguised ambition because she embodied it.

She took a very American approach to the problem of not having papers: “’I just had this idea in my head that if I can work my way into this wealth and status, then it won’t matter that I’m undocumented,’ she says. ‘I thought if I had a bunch of money I would be accepted.’”

But her success wasn’t all bootstraps. The state of Texas helped.

In her senior year of high school, Arce sent out college applications with the Social Security box blank — and got rejections. Just as she was graduating in 2001, a new law made it possible for undocumented Texas students to attend public universities at in-state rates. Five weeks later the director for admissions at the University of Texas at Austin wrote to say her application had been reviewed and she’d been accepted.

She majored in finance. The equations “made sense to me,” she says. “There was always a right answer. There wasn’t anything ambiguous about it. There was so much ambiguity in my life that I really appreciated that.”

Individual stories of beating the odds are exciting, of course, but they’re not and can’t be a substitute for institutional change. We have to make it easier as a society to help hard-working people get ahead. Instead, Gov Rick Perry, who signed the legislation that made such a difference to Arce, is blustering about securing the border. Even Goldman Sachs, which benefited so much from Arce’s contributions, is securing its borders, making sure that all prospective employees are checked more thoroughly when they are hired.

The most interesting twist of Arce’s story comes a bit later, when she finds she has achieved everything she was striving for — money, power, a green card, a husband — and wonders why she feels empty. Having proven to herself that she can do pretty much anything, she must decide what she actually wants to do next.

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