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My name is Joe Anthony Cruz. This past May, with the help of my family and Breakthrough, I reached a goal I set for myself early in life. Today, I stand before you all with my Bachelors of Science in Media Management and Data Science from Ithaca College. 

I was born and raised in Austin. From an early age, I witnessed the debilitating effects of inequity on so many in my neighborhood. For me and my friends, going to college wasn’t a given. I saw, over and over again, talented young people failing to realize their potential –  not because of poor work ethic or lack of a loving family, but because of real barriers they faced on their educational path.

Coming from a single parent household, I am no stranger to hard work. Growing up, I saw my mother work countless hours to support our family. Her ability to see every struggle as an opportunity gave me optimism for the future despite the hardships we faced. So, when I heard about this program called Breakthrough that promised to help me from 6th grade through college, my mom and I realized that this was the key to unlocking our shared dream.

And it truly was transformative. During the middle school summer programs, I built friendships that have lasted through today. My teachers were college students themselves who answered every nagging question I had about college. Seeing that it was possible to dream big motivated me to keep coming back. Throughout high school, and especially during the college application process, I vividly remember working closely with my Breakthrough advisor Zakiyyah.  From filling out college applications to answering last minute questions, I knew I could always turn to a Breakthrough expert. This provided my family incredible relief in a time of high anxiety and stress. Meanwhile, I observed so many others from my community give up on dreams of college because they were told – implicitly and explicitly –  they couldn’t make it.

I remember wishing Breakthrough had the capacity to help them all. 

My understanding of educational inequity only intensified when I got to Ithaca College –  2,000 miles away in Upstate New York. And while I was fortunate enough to receive a full academic scholarship, which alleviated financial concerns, I soon realized there were other barriers. I was often the only one from a working-class background, one of the few students of color, and one of only a handful whose parents did not go to college.  Immediately, I began to question my own merit. Imposter syndrome set in and led to the difficult decision of whether or not to stay in Ithaca. So naturally, I decided to reach out to Breakthrough. I’ll never forget my call with Michael. He helped me think through how I could find a sense of belonging in this foreign place. Connecting with someone who had known me since I was 12 years old, reminded me of why I was there and that I had sacrificed too much to turn back.

Breakthrough has always been for me a community of supporters and mentors I could call upon. Without those trusting relationships, I would have fallen through the cracks. 

I wanted to create this same feeling of community on the Ithaca campus so that other first-gen students would not have to struggle alone. During my final years at Ithaca College, I founded the 1st Gen Student Organization, working with the Office of Admissions to provide resources and community for other first-generation college students. We created Ithaca’s first ever summer transition orientation for 1st generation college students. As a Senator on the Student Governance Council, I worked to amplify underrepresented student voices and partnered with professors to train faculty in cultural competency.

Breakthrough has opened up a world of opportunity and shown me what is possible through mentorship from advisors, teachers, and older students, who have paved the way. For this reason, I keep returning to give back to this special community. First as a Summer Teaching Fellow and now as an AmeriCorps Member advising students as they complete their own college applications. Breakthrough is a support system that many, like me, consider family.

After my term of service ends next year, I hope to continue to do my part to create more equitable and sustainable communities. I have been accepted to a PhD fellowship at the Harvard School of Design. After spending a summer in DC, I am also considering how I can shape public policy as a lawyer.

To me, the Breakthrough Challenge is about changing educational inequity in Central Texas. I’m excited that more students will be able to find a home in the Breakthrough community. That more will be able to envision themselves going to college. That more will be able to defy expectations and realize their dreams.