Graduate Sarah Haffly: Breaking the cycle of drug abuse and dysfunction motivated grad student to become her family’s success story

Sarah Haffly

By Heidi Toth
NAU Communications

Sarah Haffly’s first job was a proposal writer for the gutter company where her dad worked. She was 10 years old.

After that, Haffly moved to pizza maker, hotel housekeeper, accountant, accounting assistant office administrator, administrative assistant and graduate research assistant, doing some of those simultaneously.

Outside of her resume, there are other words to describe her life: Homelessness. Foster care. Drug-addicted parents. Poverty. Hard work. Self-motivation. Planning. Never giving up. Philanthropy. College graduate. Lumberjack.

And as of Saturday morning: graduate of Northern Arizona University’s Master’s of Business Administration program, on her way to a position with PwC, one of the largest accounting firms in the country.

This didn’t start as her Plan A. It wasn’t even necessarily B, C or D. But Haffly has spent her life finding the resources she needed to in order to create a better life for herself and those she loves, and as she worked her way through school, earning good grades, saving money and still finding time for volunteer work, all the while motivated to break the cycle in which she’d grown up, she built a life she wanted—one that will give her opportunities she never knew.

“My godfather told me once that I have the power to be anyone and do anything that I desired, and for some reason that clicked with me,” Haffly said. “While most people in my family are addicted to drugs or alcohol, I made it a point to be addicted to achieving my goals and proving everyone wrong.”

Escaping a difficult childhood

When she was young, Haffly’s family lived in Colorado Springs. Both of her parents were drug addicts, and she spent time in and out of different foster care homes, as did her siblings. When was she 10, her family was evicted from their home and forced to live with her mother’s ex-husband. Desperate to help her family and knowing she had an aunt, the fifth-grader went to the library, printed out information for every Sarah Miller in Oregon and called them all until she found her aunt. Two weeks later, she and her father moved to Oregon.

Although her aunt offered stability she hadn’t had before, Haffly’s life was far from easy. She got the unofficial job at her father’s company, then four years later got official jobs at Papa Murphy’s Pizza and Worldmark by Wyndham Resort. She got her first accounting job at 18, although accounting was not part of her career goals at this point.

“My childhood made me a stronger adult,” Haffly said. “I never really had a true childhood, so being exposed to the harsh reality of life early made me decide how I wanted to live my life early on. I’m much more thankful for the little things in life because I know what it is like to have nothing. My childhood really taught me that your life is more about giving back and enjoying the relationships you can make.”

She’d lived her entire life under the poverty line, but that didn’t make it any easier to discover that she couldn’t afford to attend Oregon State University and earn a medical degree, which was her dream, to the point that while in high school she shadowed doctors and took college nursing classes. She found a less expensive option at the Oregon Institute of Technology and stayed a pre-med student for a while, taking solace in her planning and continuing to work hard.

“I created a plan B, C, D, etc. and continued to work toward an education even though I was completely devastated by not being able to attend OSU,” she said. “My advice to other people would be to have those extra plans and not give up when life throws a giant rock through your windshield.”

Instead, she took accounting classes, discovering a love for it along the way. She said being accepted to NAU’s MBA program remains one of the highlights of her college experience.

Planning for the future

With the past as motivation, Haffly worked hard. She finished college a year early and received a graduate research assistant position at in The W. A. Franke College of Business. Last summer she volunteered for the America’s Cup in Bermuda. In high school, she was the Cadet Wing Commander of the Air Force Junior ROTC unit, and she started the Annual Military Appreciation Night Basketball Game, which connects the community with the military personnel at the nearby military base. Shortly after moving to Oregon as a previously homeless 10-year-old, she and her aunt created Scarves with Hearts, an initiative that provides scarves and gloves to homeless people and senior citizens.

Her job is taking her to Denver with regular travel to Los Angeles; Haffly will be an assurance associate in PwC’s Financial Services Center of Excellence. Two other NAU MBA grads are joining the firm as well. Her career goals, however, are a little outside the corporate world; Haffly’s dream is to be executive director of a nonprofit that focuses on promoting financial literacy skills for youth and adults, especially those under the poverty line of living on fixed incomes.

“The desire to break the cycle really motivated me in college and grad school because it was kind of an ‘I’ve made it this far, and I’m so close that I have to keep going’ type of thing,” she said. “I wanted to be my family’s success story.”

NAU Communications