Amy’s parents loved taking the family on mini-vacations – so her dad worked extra hours to make them possible. “If you have a good education, you can get good money and you can do these fun things,” he told her. Now Amy (John Handley High School ’21, University of Pittsburgh ’25) can pursue higher education, thanks in part to help from her SLI experiences. She talked with SLI about the challenges of being the first in her family to go to college.
Why did you decide to go to college?
My dad is very big on education. He thinks education is the most important thing in the world. He would love to take us on vacations, like mini-vacations to the beach or to Florida and stuff like that, and so he’d always say, ‘If you have a good education, you can get good money, and you can do these fun things.’ So that was also something I was raised with.
My father could take us on vacations but he would have to work long hours, from 5 a.m to 5 p.m in extremely hot factories that could reach a hundred degrees Fahrenheit. That’s a lot, so if I just have a good diploma and a good education, I don’t have to go through all that harsh work. I grew up with that concept engraved in me and that pushed me to go to college.
What is your family’s story?
Both my parents, they don’t have their high school diploma. I think my mom got a little further, but they both didn’t finish it. I think they both dropped out, and they came up to America instead. But my dad knew that he was going to need to know more, so his English is a lot better. He can do his own things, and everything. The boss keeps trying to promote him, but he doesn’t have a diploma, so he just doesn’t take it.
My mom still needs a little bit of help, which is also another part of me growing up, that I would have to help her with setting up doctor’s appointments and translating what the school needed from her. Which is why I think I matured a lot faster than my friends in a sense, because I did a lot of grown-up things that I needed to do, to help my family. When I was younger I wouldn’t get scared of calling a pizza place to order pizza because I had done more difficult tasks growing up.
My dad always pushed me to go to college, mostly because nobody in the family had. Not just in my household family, but my entire family in general. The most that had happened was my two older cousins got their high school diploma and then I think one of them started going to Lord Fairfax Community College, but I don’t know if they’re still attending.
My parents are both from Mexico and came up here. They started down in Florida, made their way up, and ended up staying in Virginia. I have one brother. He is going to be starting high school this year. We are four years apart in age, so as soon as I leave a school he enters the school. I won’t be here to help him, which I kind of wish I was, to give him tips and advice, but I think he’ll be fine. Yeah, he’ll learn new things.
Besides Scholars Latino Initiative (SLI), what were your high school involvements?
Although lots of the things that I did while at Handley I did unknowingly, I’m glad that I did them. For example, I joined the Interact club, which is now a huge thing in my life. Freshman year I joined and then sophomore year I decided to run for an officer position, and I became sophomore rep, and then I ran again for junior year, and I became secretary. And then this year I was vice president. Major leap.
Especially when I was younger I got pretty good grades. I was always getting A’s at Quarles [Elementary School] and in middle school. In Quarles I was taken out of class because I was a bit chatty, so I would – I was a little bit competitive, so what would happen is I would race my classmates into finishing our work and then three minutes would go by after I finished everything and I would start talking to everybody. They ended up pulling me out for an Excel program. So I would end up being taken out of class to do harder work, I guess, and then I went to Daniel Morgan [Middle School] and I still got A’s and I was still in Excel there, and then I got to high school and I was pretty decent. I had my first AP [Advanced Placement] class. That was a little difficult, but I still did well.
What are your college (and beyond) plans?
I’m going to the University of Pittsburgh. I am a first generation student so this is new for my family and all. My dad wanted me on the East Coast, so I only looked at applying for colleges there. My mom, on the other hand, wanted me to stay in town, but I ended up choosing to attend the University of Pittsburgh. They offered me the most in scholarships and money, and since I’m going to be majoring in biology, they have a really good science department.
I like working with real things, things that I can see and stuff like that, so I’m going to be looking for research opportunities and trying to work in the lab as a first year. But I do plan on maybe going to medical school. I don’t say that because a lot of people want to say that, but I do want to get my doctor’s degree. So yeah, I probably will go to medical school. That’s kind of the plan right now. I’ll probably stay at Pittsburgh for my bachelor’s and then when I start going to grad school or medical school, I’ll see what school I end up going to, and I’ll probably end up moving there.
I do want to come back to Winchester. I thought when I was younger Apple Blossom was a thing celebrated throughout the whole United States. I thought it was like a holiday, and then I started making friends outside of Virginia. None of them knew what Apple Blossom was, so I was like, ‘Okay, Apple Blossom is not – it’s not a thing celebrated everywhere.’ So I’m pretty happy that I got to partake in that growing up, because it’s a huge celebration and it’s a lot of fun and I’ve made a lot of good memories because of it. I’m glad that Winchester has that. I really appreciate what this town has to offer.
What was your experience with SLI?
I got connected with SLI from I think Mr. Keller. He’s the world history teacher, so freshman year. He’s like the first honors class you take when you get to Handley, and I’m pretty sure he was the one that recommended me. He asked me and my friend to join and he was actually one of the people that interviewed me when it was time to get interviewed.
Lots of people think high school is just about going to school and getting good grades, but as a first-generation student, sometimes it’s about building connections. SLI really helped with college, especially this year.
How did SLI help you?
I was paired up with Damaris who was my mentor for college, and she was a huge help for me. I didn’t really know about the whole application process for applying to colleges, and I also didn’t know how early you should start, but she would keep texting me and reminding me.
First we talked about what I wanted to do. She was really helpful with that because I had a lot of ideas circulating, and so we had a meeting and I wrote everything down and she made me take a few personality tests and career tests, and she did research for some of them, and she spent a bit of time differentiating for me what I should major in and what I should just keep as a hobby. We had conversations about how to get resumes done and talked to my guidance counselor and my essays and all that, and she was really good about reminding me to finish it.
She would send me text messages like, ‘Did you finish applying to this school? Did you finish this spreadsheet?’ and those texts – I wanted to respond right away, so I would get on them and finish it, just to respond and say ‘Yeah, I finished this.’ She was really helpful with that. I don’t know if she knows that that was pushing me, but it really was, because I felt like someone was depending on me to complete my work. It helped a lot.
And to show her the information that I had done. I did a few spreadsheets, which I’m pretty proud of – they’re really nice. They have all the tuition and extra fees broken down for all the schools, how far away they are from Winchester, the GPA they needed, what they requested of me, the essay topics I needed to write about, and the deadlines for the early action, regular decision, and decision notification. So I made those. She really enjoyed those and that was really helpful in deciding where I was going to go, because it laid out everything and all the information very clearly.
So yeah, I ended up choosing Pittsburgh. But that was a journey.
What’s next on your journey?
I also don’t know who my roommate is going to be because I kind of procrastinated on that. Pittsburgh does allow you to select – they have genres, kind of, so if you’re interested in a particular subject matter you can pick one and they’ll assign you someone who also has that interest. So my roommate will probably be doing a lot of volunteering work or will probably be a leader in some sort of club or something, because that’s what I chose, because I really want to get involved. And I know that if I have a roommate that wants to do the same thing, it’ll be a lot easier.
I hope I have a good first day, because I’m going to be meeting a lot of people, a lot of teachers, and trying to get my way around. But I’m excited.