My first semester at VCU was chaotic. Everything was happening really fast. My grandfather had passed away a few months before school started and due to covid restrictions, my family and I were unable to travel. As the start of the school year came closer (less than a month away), we had to go on a rushed trip to Mexico so that we could have our visas renewed. I returned to the U.S. with a renewed visa two days before school started. I had barely any time to process what was happening because of all of the things going on in my life at that moment.
During my first semester I soon realized that I was unhappy in mechanical engineering. I had felt like I had to continue the family’s line of engineers, but after a talk with my father, I felt relieved of that thought and decided to change my major to something that I am truly passionate about and feel like I can do more in. I am now double majoring in criminal justice and homeland security. My vision is to go to law school to become a lawyer.
I am currently an intern with one of the best attorneys in the state. I have always been attracted to the legal field, and I have a strong sense of justice and advocacy. I feel like as a lawyer I will have more power to stand up to people, and to help my community from any unjust treatment.
My only source of income is my father. My current type of visa does not allow me to have a job. This is one of the things that have me constantly worried. Knowing that I cannot help my family financially is a big concern for me.
Huguenot High School ’21 Virginia Commonwealth University ’25
Some of my most memorable accomplishments in high school consisted of many great activities that helped me to become a well rounded student. In the beginning of my freshman year, I joined the volleyball team, and continued through my junior year before the pandemic hit. My sophomore year, I had the opportunity to take classes to become a vet assistant, something that I became very passionate about. I also took three years of American sign language, and was able to hold a conversation with some people.
I also began working during my sophomore year. Working a part-time job and being a full- time student isn’t easy, and I worked very hard in both school and my job.
Now I am a full-time college student working a part-time job as a vet assistant at an animal hospital. It makes me feel proud knowing that my parents came to a foreign country away from their home to give their children a better life. I am where I am because of their hard work.
Now that I’m in college, my expectations and goals for myself are many. I’ve had the opportunity to join a club and connect with more students like myself who share the same interests. One of my goals is to come out of my shell and try new things.
And as I continue my years in college I hope to accomplish more goals like doing outreach and learning more about how to become independent step by step. I still live with my parents, so I commute. But being on my own, driving to school and spending more time on campus, is teaching me what it is like to do things on my own. I hope to learn this new stage in my life, and to adapt to it fast.
I have always enjoyed writing, and being in SLI for three years helped me strengthen that ability. I am a first generation college student and the oldest child, but my parents, close friends, and amazing professors and mentors all push me to give it all my best.
John Handley High School ’22 George Mason University ’26 (computer science)
Ever since I applied to be a SLI scholar, I knew two things for certain: I wanted to go to a four-year college, and I wanted to study computer science. George Mason University is the college that I chose to fulfill my biggest goals, and I’m confident I will have the tools available to stay up to date on new and evolving technologies and build my knowledge of computer science concepts and languages. Furthermore, GMU is close to the action of D.C and all surrounding areas, and I hope to have networking, internships, and work opportunities available to help me be active in the tech world.
I am grateful to SLI for all the help and support it’s given me and others.
My biggest strengths are my adaptability and optimism, which will continue to help me as I enter college. The tech industry grows and involves at a rapid pace, and I need to be able to adapt to it. The pandemic forced me to become more adaptable to anything and challenged my optimism. However, I figured out how to stay optimistic by taking everything in, letting myself take breaks, and seeing the light at the end even as the world grew bitter. Whatever the industry decides to throw, I know I will be able to adapt and figure out any new technology. And when it eventually gets frustrating, I will remind myself of the light at the end of the tunnel.
In college having to program and find different solutions to problems will allow my creativity to grow. As an artist, I have countless drawings filling space on my hard drive, but this talent also allows me to figure out creative ways to solve a problem. Programming is all about trial and error, so even if a solution seems impractical, I still need to try it and see if it gets me anywhere. To be able to create great programs, test out features, or go bug hunting, I will need to be confident in my creativity.
By attending college I want to learn how to be the best ESL teacher I can be. I want to learn how English is taught so I can do that well, and I plan to get a master’s degree to expand my options and make me a better educator.
I also hope to learn more about the world and other people, and perhaps to one day also teach English in other countries. Learning history and about cultures all over the world will allow me to better connect with my students and people around me.
My family is not able to financially support my education, so I am determined to do my very best to pay my way through college. I have a passion for learning, and will make certain to take advantage of every opportunity I am given to continue my journey.
My strengths are in my character and dedication toward achieving my goals. I’ve been told that I am kind and compassionate, which will help me to be a good and understanding college student and future teacher. My determination will help me to keep on track and do the best job that I can towards achieving the future I want for myself.
Watch Any and Grisell share about their educational paths and goals – and about how SLI at Harrisonburg High School is helping them tell their own stories. They spoke during a virtual meeting of the Rockingham Rotary Club.
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.
Scholars Latino Initiative scholar Alex (Harrisonburg High School ’22) never planned to attend college in the US, but now hopes to study computer science at a prestigious university here. A restaurant server, writer, and member of the National Honor and Spanish National Honor Societies, Alex is poised for an academically packed senior year.
When did you decide you wanted to go to college? As a kid, you always want to be a doctor. I remember when I was in first, second grade saying that I was going to be a doctor. But now that I’m an adult, I’m afraid of needles and I don’t like seeing other people’s blood, so I’m better off using computers.
I didn’t know that I wanted to go to college until probably 6th or 7th grade. That was when I was back in my country, El Salvador. I just said that I was going to go to the university, but I never thought that I was going to be able to.
But then in 2018 everything changed for my brother and me, because my mom decided that we had to come to the US. My dad had come to the US when I was four, so he could give us a better life. Then he got sick, and my mom was like, “It’s now my duty to move to the US and be giving you guys the life that you guys deserve.” She was going to come by herself, but then my cousin called her and said, “Hey, just wait one month, and then we’re going to help you” to bring my brother and me. My mom returned home and waited, and a month later she told us we were moving to the US next month.
It was never in my plans to come to the US. I had thought I would live my whole life in El Salvador, but it didn’t happen.
What has been your high school experience? I didn’t know English when I came to the US during my freshman year, so they put me in 9th grade even though I was supposed to be a sophomore.
Sophomore year I actually started taking regular classes and honors classes, and I joined a few clubs, including SLI. I almost dropped my Honors history class, but I didn’t, and got a 103% in the class. It made me more confident with taking more difficult classes, because I know that I can do it if I really want to.
In my junior year I took two Advanced Placement (AP) classes and two dual enrollment classes for college credit, and honors classes as well. My GPA was 4.1
I could have graduated last year, because I only needed two classes, but I decided to stay so I could boost my GPA and take more AP and dual enrollment classes, and make my resume stronger so I can show colleges what I’ve done with only several years in the US.
For my senior year I am taking three AP classes (physics, government, and Spanish literature) and two dual enrollment classes (calculus and English). I’ll also continue working and doing community service, so I can give back to the community. I’ve already signed up for different community service opportunities that are happening this upcoming month.
How did you join SLI? In my freshman year they handed out SLI information in my government ESL class. I filled it out, and wrote my essay that we’re supposed to write, and I then handed it back to Ms. Bowman. I was like, “I just came to the US. I’m probably not at the same level as the other kids applying, so I’m definitely not getting in,” but I got in.
SLI introduced me to ways to give back to the community and help the community become a better place. I didn’t know how to give back to the community when I was a freshman, but SLI introduced me to different things, like volunteering at Waterman Elementary School with Amigos Unidos. That gave me a different view of things, and led me to sign up for more community service opportunities.
What about computer science interests you? I like all the mystery there is behind computers, how they actually work, and all the impact they are going to have on the future, and the impact that they’re having right now on us. It gives me goosebumps just trying to learn how everything works in them.
Since I was a kid I was really curious about everything. If I need to know something, I’m actually going to look for it, and if I want to learn something, I’m not going to be okay until I learn it, until I’ve mastered it.
Back in El Salvador, I had a camera and a computer that my cousin left for me. My favorite show was about magic, so I looked up how to do all the visual effects, and by 12 years old I was recording myself doing magic tricks and editing them using visual effects. My videos were not good, but they were not bad, either – kind of good. I could make things disappear and reappear at a different place, making it look smooth, like it actually happened.
I took AP computer science principles this past year, and got 100% in the class.
You’re also a writer? One of my biggest goals is to publish a book and make an impact on readers. When I was 15 I created a cover for a book that I was going to write, and the whole plot, and I actually wrote it. It has 25 chapters, with around 2,000 words per chapter. That was the first book that I wrote.
There was one trilogy that I was going to write, like Hunger Games and Harry Potter mixed together. I developed the plot for the three books, but I didn’t end up writing them. I actually have lots of drafts of different books that I want to write, more than 20, more than 30 drafts.
What has kept you motivated? My family, and mainly my mom. I was doing everything because of them, because I wanted to make them proud. My mom didn’t finish grade school or anything like that, and she didn’t go to high school, and I feel like it would be disrespectful for them if I didn’t keep going, pushing myself to be better, to give them a future they deserve.
I want my brother to see me as a role model. I want him to know that if he wants something, he can do it. He just has to believe that he can do it and he will.
This summer Scholars Latino Initiative scholar Johana (Harrisonburg High School ‘22) started her first job, at a department store. She loves helping customers, she said in the following interview with SLI, and plans to continue serving others as a nurse practitioner.
Why did you decide to work in a department store? I was trying to get out of my comfort zone. I know a lot of people, but I also like to be with just a few people. So I thought, “Let me get a job and save money.” And I’m loving it there.
I like seeing different people, the customers. One day I was feeling kind of sad, and this lady came to me and she said, “Have you tried this candy?” She loved this candy. It was like Italian lemon flavored. She said, “Here you go, you can try it and tell me if you like it.” Now it’s one of my favorites.
She made my day. That’s something that I love about working with different types of people: They can make your day better.
Who are some other people you have learned from? My dad always told me, “Hey, you’d better go to college, better get a degree, because I didn’t have that opportunity, and I want you to have it, for a better life.” He wants me to be that person, to be a professional. And I want that, too. I don’t want to just do it for him, I want to do it for myself. So I always had that mindset of going to college.
He started taking some programs that would help him progress in his work. He keeps studying. He’s like, “I just want an opportunity to go to college, too.”
I used to make fun of him. I used to say to him, “Hey, Mr. Google,” because I could ask him whatever, and he would always have an answer. Even if it wasn’t right, he always had an answer.
What are your career goals? I want to become a nurse practitioner. I love everything related to the human body, how every system in our body has a different function, and how they all work together. I believe our creation is so fascinating.
For a nurse aid class this fall, I’ll be at a retirement community. I’m excited to learn about caregiving in that setting.
What has been your experience with SLI? SLI has given me many opportunities to grow
I applied to SLI at the end of my freshman year. I was afraid to speak in public, and I remember the first year. [SLI program director] Dr. Alemán was always asking us many questions about different topics. He was always pointing at people, saying, “What do you think about this? What do you think about that?” I was always so nervous, like, “Oh my God, I don’t want him to pick me.” But Dr. Alemán has helped me to be more confident in public speaking.
SLI has created for me a vision for college, how to get into college, how to be a college student but also how to be a better college student. It has also given me a lot of opportunities to be around brilliant people who teach many good things including how to be one of them.
It has also given me opportunities to work with my community, the Latinx community. I’m so thankful that I’m in SLI, and I can’t wait to see all the amazing things we will do this year.
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) will study molecular biology at the University of Pittsburgh, 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.
Richmond SLI scholar Guadalupe ’24 enjoys photography, baking, and school – and “will work hard” in SLI toward a professional career.
What are some of your interests? I enjoy listening to music, as well as working with photography (see above) during my leisure time. Occasionally I am found in the kitchen baking. I enjoy baking brownies as they are a joy to eat and the process is easy. I love attending all my classes, personally I enjoy English and Career and Technical Education classes.
What would you like to share about your family? I am the oldest daughter of three children. I live with both my father and mother as well as my siblings. My parents have always been supportive of my decisions and have helped me grow as a person full of respect, discipline, and humbleness. I have lived in Richmond ever since I was born.
What are your college and career goals? I aspire to attend college because I would like to be open to opportunities that can help me enter a professional career. Lawyers and business leaders have always been top interests for me.
How did you learn about SLI, and why did you decide to join? SLI site coordinator Ms. Orellana introduced me to SLI. This program prepares you for college and how college works. I am thankful for the program, for Professor Kaufman and all the resources associated with SLI. I hope to learn a lot from this program and will work hard.