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An interview with Maria, SLI scholar

SLI scholar Maria (Godwin High School ’22) is using her experiences and love of academics to help others in similar situations. An equity ambassador for her school, she also leads students in tutoring their English as a Second Language (ESL) classmates.

What’s something you’re looking forward to about your senior year in high school?

I’m going to have calculus, statistics, and physics. It’s going to be really hard, but I’m kind of looking forward to really being there in person with my teachers and asking them how to really improve and do well, the best that I can. 

I go to Godwin High School, and am part of the center for medical sciences there. You can take really cool elective classes, microbiology and genetics and that type of thing. Last year I took microbiology. It was a great experience, but the thing that was missing from it was the labs, since we were online. That was kind of sad, but despite that, I was still able to learn so much and it was such a fun experience.This year my physics class will have labs, and organic chemistry. That’s one I saw when I was a sophomore, and they do a bunch of labs with chemicals.

Are you planning to go into a medical career?

I wanted to go to Godwin in the first place to figure out whether a medical path would be good for me, and I’ve discovered that basically it’s really, really hard. They really force you to go outside your comfort zone and teach you how to do research, how to do a scientific research paper and all of that. Maybe I want to pursue something related to that. 

I’ve done plant-related research projects since my freshman year, and last year I actually won first place at a science fair. That was kind of shocking. My project was called “The Effect of Lipid Second Messenger Phosphatidic Acid on Spinach Growth.” I have learned a lot about how to do plant research. It’s fun.

What have been your school experiences?

I moved here from Mexico when I was 10 years old, in August 2013. I went to fourth grade, and my teacher met me for two months and then went on maternity leave, so I got another teacher. I didn’t know how to speak English, but she treated me like any other student, and I was forced to learn English really fast. By fifth grade I was already at level four in ESL, and sixth grade was my last year taking ESL.

I worked really hard to do well. I’d look at my classmates who were in advanced classes, and I was just really sad that my teacher didn’t put me in any of them, because I had good grades in science. She knew that I liked science, but I guess she didn’t think that I was capable. 

That made me kind of sad or disappointed, that she didn’t think that I could do it, so I just took it upon myself to do well in my science classes. I kept asking my teachers, “Hey, do you think that I could take this advanced class next year? How does that work?” In seventh grade I took two science classes at the same time. I just was like, “I’m going to do it.” 

I took all the middle school classes that I needed to take to be accepted to Godwin, and I ended up doing really well. I guess that was really a good moment for me in school.

What else motivates you?

I came to this country so that I could improve, to get a better education and a better life. 

My dad ended up out of school after third grade, but he did learn how to read and do math, so that was really helpful. He always says, “Yeah, I didn’t didn’t even get to finish more than third grade because I had to work, but I want you to really learn.” 

My mom finished elementary school and then she had to start working at a factory so that she could support her younger siblings so that they could actually stay in school for a little bit longer.

My parents have always talked to me about how important school is and how it can get you really far in life and can just help you in many ways. Even my grandma always talks about school. She never learned how to read or anything. She feels bad that she doesn’t know how to read, but she always said, “My kids are going to learn how to read, and they’re going to stay in school for as long as humanly possible.”

How did you get connected with SLI?

In my first year of high school, I began to notice that my classmates already knew how to write science papers. The most I’d written in middle school was three pages, maybe two pages, but they had already written eight- to 14-page research papers, and had been reading scientific literature. I was like, “Okay, I am miles behind everyone else.”

But my science teacher, even though she was really intimidating and at first I was just a scared freshman, really encouraged me. She made sure that I knew that I could ask her any kind of questions, and just helped me a lot. She also got to know me personally. Then her husband heard about SLI, and so that’s how she gave me Dr. Kaufman’s email. I reached out to him my sophomore year, and I’ve been able to get so much out of this wonderful program and am very thankful for this opportunity.

This summer I took a French class and a government class. Then I took two weeks off, and then I got back into work on my SLI paper that we were working on. I finished it last week and turned it in, and now I’m going to just get as prepared as I can for the ACT and the SAT, and also review a little math so that I’m not completely at a loss when I get to school.

You also enjoy helping other students, right?

I am an equity ambassador, which is a program that focuses on bringing the same opportunities to every student. One day, during a meeting with the principal, the counseling director, some teachers in the equity team, and parents, I took it upon myself to bring up that ESL students could really use some peer support, especially in high school. 

My sophomore year, at around the same time that I started SLI, I began tutoring a brand new student from Honduras. She didn’t know anything. It was her first year, so I had to teach her a lot of things and help her with math and English. 

My principal gave me the opportunity to have a club to help ESL students. We’ve been working on that, helping ESL students, and trying to recruit student tutors that speak different languages but also that are passionate about helping other people. Most of the time that is very much the case, because they also have shared the same experience of coming here and being absolutely lost, especially with virtual school. 

I have really enjoyed being able to help people in some kind of way. Even if we help just one student it will all be worth it.