Third time's a charm for this alum
December 21, 2020
By Elizabeth Talbot
How does a first-generation college graduate obtain a bachelor’s degree in four years while working full time and raising a child? Ask Michaella Perez, a woman who twice attended college before returning to UAF to earn her degree in interdisciplinary studies in 2013. The answer is summer courses and a ton of hard work.
Like many women in Perez’s family, her mother was a hard worker. She took advantage of an opportunity to work with her own mother on the pipeline when her daughter was only 5 years old. Perez is eternally grateful and has continued the tradition by opening her own business, Café de Stir It Up. The Fairbanks favorite celebrated its fifth anniversary in November 2020.
“Becoming a first-generation college student after both my mother and stepfather dropped out of college was an amazing feeling,” she said. “I think about the example I set for my son and two younger sisters and am grateful that I could show them that college is achievable if that is the path they want to pursue.”
Perez began her college experience studying early childhood education. She felt drawn to help people, but once she realized a traditional education degree would not encompass all that she wanted to learn, she used the flexibility of UAF’s programs to create a unique interdisciplinary degree that focused on special needs and early childhood inclusion.
“Being a single mother of an infant as I embarked on my collegiate journey was an obstacle in itself,” she said. “I was a child who had a child and was trying to wade through the murky waters of young adulthood and parenting. I worked part time through the first two years. Then I worked full time through my last two years. I wanted to have my B.A. in four years or less, so I worked diligently for four years straight, summer classes included, to achieve this goal.”
Her next plan was to study for a degree in occupational therapy. Despite having no educational background in business, Perez also decided to open a coffee cart because she thought the business would “become successful overnight.”
Working as a barista while putting herself through school, she noticed how a single cup of coffee or yummy beverage could brighten someone’s day. “When I opened Stir It Up in 2015, just months after getting my undergraduate degree, I was taking classes to prepare for an occupational therapy degree. I balanced both for the first two years.”
Eventually, she decided to leave the field and dedicate herself to the café life. She rented a space and, six months later, Café de Stir It Up was born. She now operates both the drive-throughs and the café, an impressive expansion, considering she opened her first location only five years ago.
Both businesses offer a wide variety of foods that meet many dietary restrictions. Her son’s food allergies are a big factor in developing the unique menus. She wanted people with food intolerances to still be able to enjoy tasty meals.
“I wanted to create a model that encompassed people of all dietary lifestyles,” she said. “Years of working through new allergies with my son has given me the knowledge to be able to feed people based on their needs, whether it is a choice they have made or a choice that was made by their bodies.”
She imagined building a business here in Fairbanks that truly understands what it means when someone says dairy-free, gluten-free or grain-free. “I wanted to create a place where people who all eat differently can sit down at the same table and actually enjoy what they're eating and drinking instead of scrounging from a menu to find items that fit their dietary needs,” she said.
She faced many challenges as an entrepreneur. Until recently, she did all the baking for all locations. She runs her own social media and communications, does the ordering and runs the errands, all while working at the café daily. Still, she has found a way to be connected to her Golden Heart community.
Perez recently launched a program in coordination with the Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce called Pay With a Post-It.
“Many times people ask if they can pay it forward, but sometimes this gets difficult so we created a way for this random act of kindness to occur regularly,” she said. “Though times are hard right now, we all know a simple cup of coffee can bring us a moment of joy. We want to create a commUNITY impact, hoping to bring us closer through a random act of kindness. This is something I dreamed of happening at my businesses when it first opened and now it happens regularly.”
Due to COVID-19, Perez’s son is home-schooled and comes to work with her daily. “Aziyah loves treats and drinks from the cafe. He loves to taste test new items and offer us new ideas,” she said. “Some days he loves being at the businesses and other days he hates it. But the Academy of Stir It Up is where he lives these days.”
Perez credits her experiences at UAF with much of her success. While she is not currently using her degree in the traditional sense, she “learned hard work, dedication, perseverance, public speaking, technical writing and organizational skills” that helped lead to her status as a business owner.
“I created lasting professional relationships and networked in a variety of departments. And I created bonds that have helped me both personally and professionally,” she said.
She maintains such a close connection with her alma mater because she knows firsthand how the university supports nontraditional students. She hopes to show other students that they can overcome challenges.
Her advice is simple. “Never quit taking the necessary steps to achieve your goals. It will be worth it in the end. But first, coffee.”