After losing her mother, Rachel Velez ’20 found strength through Miami’s Pulley Tower

By Jesús Jiménez, assistant director of editorial services

Last Father’s Day, Rachel Velez ’20 received a photo message from her father, Gus. It was her college diploma, and he called it ‘the best Father’s Day present.’

Rachel’s college career was anything but easy.

Two months into her first year at Miami University, Rachel had to return home for emergency gallbladder surgery.

One month into her sophomore year, her mother passed away after a long battle with mental health.

Working through these challenges while pursuing a college degree was not easy. But in a unique way, being at Miami helped strengthen her during difficult times.

Upon returning to campus following her mother’s death, Rachel told her professors that she was struggling to get back in routine.

As she walked to Upham Hall for class, a sound from Pulley Tower touched Rachel’s heart.

It was The Beatles’ song “Let it Be.” She heard it again. And again. And again.

“I would walk past Pulley Tower on my way to class, and that was where, right in front of Shideler Hall, ‘Let it Be’ would play almost every single day,” Rachel said.

“It was such a beautiful song. I can’t find the right word for it, but it fit best.”

Rachel soon got a tattoo of the words “Let it Be” on her right side, commemorating the special moment that strengthened her.

Let it Be tattoo

That special moment on Miami’s campus helped her commemorate the memory of her late mother, Susan Meyer.

“I would sing the song along with the tune of Pulley Tower, and I just remember the same verse, and it was just so powerful,” Rachel said. “It resonated with me, and I remember I would tear up anytime I heard it. No matter if I had heard it multiple times a day, I would tear up every single time, because it was so strong and so powerful.

“Those three words have such a strong meaning, there are some things that you can’t change.”

A rebellious tattoo

Rachel’s relationship with her mother wasn’t always easy. Her parents divorced when Rachel was young, and Susan moved to West Chester, Ohio, about 25 miles east of Miami.

Rachel and her brother, Jacob stayed in Los Angeles with her father, Gus, and would visit their mother during the holidays. When it came time to apply for colleges, Miami University turned out to be the perfect fit.

“The relationship my mom and I had was kind of difficult,” Rachel said. “My dad was in the Air Force and she was a stay-at-home mom. We had our ups and downs, our arguments. I was really one to fight back and not follow the rules.”

During her first year, Rachel’s rebellious side peaked as she got her first tattoo: a rose on her ankle.

“It resonated with me, and I remember I would tear up anytime I heard it. No matter if I had heard it multiple times a day, I would tear up every single time, because it was so strong and so powerful.

Rachel Velez ’20 on hearing the song “Let it Be”

Her father wasn’t a big fan of tattoos, but he decided to have a conversation with Rachel.

“The first one she got, I believe is a rose tattoo that she has on one of her ankles,” Gus said. “She was rebellious, because she had that one tattoo and by the time she had gallbladder surgery, she had three tattoos.

“Myself personally, I don’t believe in getting tattoos for myself, but I figured she would eventually get one because she had talked about it.”

Following that conversation with her father, Rachel decided that if she ever got another tattoo, it would have a special meaning. She didn’t realize just how meaningful the next one would be.

‘I was crushed … ‘

Rachel Velez '20 (front left) with father Gus (back left), mother Susan (back right) and brother Jacob (front right).
Rachel Velez ’20 (front left) with father Gus (back left), mother Susan (back right) and brother Jacob (front right).

The day was Oct. 1, 2017, when Rachel’s aunt and uncle paid her a visit at Miami. They gave her the news: her mother had passed away.

“I was crushed,” Rachel said. “She was our connection to Ohio for so long. She grew up there and we basically did, too, because we visited so many times.”

Rachel was 19 years old at the time, and with her family in Los Angeles, she was primarily responsible for making funeral arrangements – all while grieving.

“Her gallbladder surgery had taken her out of pocket for about three weeks. It affected her studies, no doubt. Then it was her sophomore year that her mother passed,” Gus said. “Both of those things together had an effect on her. I’ll say it was compounded by the fact that she was so far away from home. Her brother and I were still in Los Angeles. Since Rachel was right there, Rachel was essentially her direct heir and was called in to settle her mom’s affairs. The primary responsibility for that and for some of the funeral arrangements fell on Rachel – which, in addition to her mom passing – I just don’t think it made it any better.”

As Rachel struggled to mourn, she found comfort in a close family friend who was going through a difficult time of her own.

‘She needed me when I needed to be needed’

Lisa Vanderpoorten is Rachel’s “second mother.”

A close friend of the family’s, Lisa grew close to Rachel and Jacob when Susan moved away.

“When my mom left, she asked Ms. Lisa to take care of us,” Rachel said. “We would walk around the corner to her house and drive to school with her, she would take us home from school, she would let me stay over for dinner so many nights, let me sleep over – I see her as my second mom. She was just so supportive of my family.”

As difficult as things were when Rachel’s mother passed, she found comfort through Lisa – who at the time also needed comfort of her own. She was battling cancer.

While Lisa struggled with feeling like a burden on her family, she welcomed the outreach from Rachel.

Miami alumna Rachel Velez '20 (center) with her brother, Jacob (left) and their "second mother" Lisa Vanderpoorten (right)
Rachel Velez ’20 (center) with her brother, Jacob (left) and their “second mother” Lisa Vanderpoorten (right)

“It was a very weird feeling for me, because I think it really helped me through that really rough part of how sick I was and just still having to continue with radiation that was making me sicker,” Lisa said. “As sick as I was, I was able to help someone else. Rachel felt really bad, saying, ‘I’m sorry.’ And I would say, ‘Rachel, this actually makes me feel useful.’ She needed me when I needed to be needed.”

Rachel remembers the role Lisa played in her life.

“She called me all the time, but she was also battling cancer, so I was her support system while she was in the hospital and we just spent time talking to each other,” Rachel said.

‘I just started crying’

Rachel graduated virtually this summer after the COVID-19 pandemic ended the 2020 spring semester early.

A public health major with a minor in nutrition, Rachel plans to pursue a Master of Public Health at the University of Georgia, where her parents met.

Miami will always be a place that reminds her of the difficult times she overcame and how she was able to overcome them. A few days before leaving campus, she and her boyfriend walked to Western Campus, where she vividly remembers learning about her mother’s passing.

Her perseverance paid off when Gus received her diploma in the mail.

“Every parent wants to see their child succeed,” Gus said. “Rachel was able to receive her college degree in four years despite everything that’s gone on, and I’m really proud of her for that.”

Gus texted Rachel a photo of the diploma. She realized just how impressive her achievement was.

“Graduating from Miami allowed me to have this whole experience in Ohio on my own,” Rachel said. “My dad sent me a photo of the diploma and said, ‘This is the best Father’s Day present I could ever get.

“I just started crying, because I had so many difficult challenges to overcome, but I pushed through and did it.”

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