For dramatic effect, Jeffanie likes to tell people that she met Stephen at a blackjack table in December 2017. But it was really at a casino-themed holiday office party, no actual money involved. She and Stephen were new dealers for a local entertainment company. She was assigned to the Texas Hold’em poker table, but wasn’t trained in that game. As she was explaining that to her supervisor, Stephen came from behind and offered to swap jobs with her, so she worked his blackjack table instead, and they chatted between games.
Later that evening, she accepted a shift at a Friday event that week, then realized she couldn’t do it. Jeffanie told Stephen she’d double-booked herself and asked if he wanted to fill in for her. He responded with a so-you’re-that-kind-of-girl sort of quip that irked her a bit. She scribbled her phone number on a napkin and told him to let her know if he’d do it. “If he were sitting here, he’d point out that I gave him my number first,” Jeffanie says, laughing.
What she didn’t want to tell Stephen was that she was already juggling five other jobs to help pay her way through the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. On weekends, she was a concierge at a luxury apartment building in Rockville and a waitress at night. She interned for a leadership consulting firm on weekdays, and when she could squeeze in extra work, she’d deliver food for Postmates and write resumes for a fee.
Jeffanie desperately needed the work because of her immigration status. She moved to the D.C. area from Indonesia in 1991, when she was just a few months old, returned to her homeland in 1996 after her parents divorced, and then came back to the United States with her mother and younger sister in 1999. She was a “dreamer,” the term that came to describe undocumented immigrants who are shielded from deportation because they were brought into this country as children. She renewed her status and work permit every two years, but was not eligible for citizenship—or federal aid, including student loans. Money was tight, and her working-class family couldn’t afford much, let alone college tuition. Given the bureaucratic and financial hurdles, her mother and stepfather discouraged her from pursuing higher education.
But Jeffanie didn’t listen. Instead, she sought help from CollegeTracks, a nonprofit that specializes in advising low-income and first-generation college students in Montgomery County. “I always told students that I can help them open the door, but I can’t walk through it for them,” says Liz McLeod, the College-Tracks program director who worked with Jeffanie at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. “Jeffanie was the type of person who would walk through any door. She was meticulous about following up on everything she needed to do.”
After graduating from B-CC in 2010, Jeffanie enrolled at Montgomery College that fall and transferred to the University of Maryland in 2015, though she took nearly all of her classes at a satellite campus at The Universities at Shady Grove in Rockville. She was days away from graduating—after a seven-year journey—when she met Stephen at that holiday party.
Jeffanie didn’t want to share all that detail with Stephen, a virtual stranger, so she stuck to her line about being double-booked and didn’t elaborate. They texted soon after. He took her shift that Friday, and when they worked another event together a few days later, he asked her out for coffee.