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I first moved to Austin from Mexico with my parents and my younger sister when I was in first grade. The four of us and eventually my brother too, shared one room of my aunt’s house for three years, until we could finally afford our own place nearby. Up until that point, I’d always been a really lively, outgoing child, but the adjustment to school in Austin was much more difficult than I expected. I had always been a good student, eager to learn, but my English was choppy at first and because of the differences in school systems, I repeated a grade. I had a really hard time fitting in and started to doubt that I could be successful. That feeling just intensified and lasted all throughout elementary school. I went from being lively and not caring about others opinions to becoming self-conscious and full of self-doubt.

It was in my 6th grade year at Kealing Middle School when I first heard about Breakthrough. My parents have always wanted the best for me and they provide an incredible support system, but they themselves didn’t attend college or graduate from high school and had no idea how we could make our dream of me graduating from a 4 year university a reality. I clearly remember the enthusiasm that came over me when I realized what Breakthrough could mean for me – the doors that it could open to my future.

At Breakthrough, I found that community of students like me – students who were eager to learn, who shared my dream of going to college – and most importantly, I found a safe place where I could be myself. I remember my first summer at Breakthrough on the University of Texas campus, there was one boy, Issa, who would get up and dance and act crazy during our morning cheers, something I soon learned was completely acceptable and highly encouraged. All the activities, including performing Shakespeare, really pushed me outside of my comfort zone, along with the small academic classes that left no room to hide in the shadows. Breakthrough forced me, in a good way, to step up and find my voice.

Little by little that new found confidence carried into the rest of my life and into high school at the Liberal Arts and Science Academy. For those who don’t know, LASA is among the most rigorous high schools in the country, and I struggled with 4 or more hours of homework every night while working a part-time job to help support my family. As the oldest child, I felt a lot of pressure to succeed and make my parents proud, but I started to doubt again that I could achieve my dreams. I watched my older cousins and my friends choose a different path, and I started to wonder if I could really make it to college. If they couldn’t do it, how in the world could I?

Throughout all of this Breakthrough never gave up on me. My Breakthrough advisor Andrea, who I might add is an amazing person, was with me every step of the way. I remember one time during my junior year, talking to Andrea about how I felt selfish for even considering a four-year college when my parents had already sacrificed so much. Andrea took on that burden. She reminded me that college was not just my dream – it was my family’s dream too. Her positivity, knowledge and care helped to keep my dream alive. She spent countless hours advising me on the steps needed to take the SAT, apply to college and submit dozens of scholarships, in addition to the academic support that’s helped me to be a more successful student. And even though I knew she was working with lots of other students, when I talk to Andrea, she makes me feel like I am the only one. She invested so much in me that I had no option but to succeed.

Suffice it to say, if not for Breakthrough, I don’t know if I would be standing here today as a sophomore at St. Edward’s University, studying International Business. But Breakthrough continues to have a positive effect on me. This past summer, I had the opportunity to work as a physics teacher for Breakthrough’s Middle School Summer Program at UT. Here I was in charge of the future of an energetic group of 8th graders with their own college dreams, and I started to wonder if I could have the same impact on them that the program had on me almost 8 years ago. I’ll never forget the last day of the program, when one of the students who was just like my 8th grade self, stood up in front of the entire group during our closing ceremony to say with tears in her eyes, “Miss Thelma I just want to say that you are the best teacher, and I want to be just like you when I grow up.”

My experience teaching is what helped me to truly come out of my shell. I may not be a complete extrovert or the most outgoing, but there is definitely a significant change between the shy, withdrawn little 7th grader that I used to be and who I have become, and I couldn’t be happier.

Breakthrough has changed my life, my family’s life forever. My brother and sister are now in the program too. For us, Breakthrough is more than a program – it’s family, a genuine community, and I can’t imagine my life without it. Mom, Dad, thank you so much for everything you’ve sacrificed so that we could have a better life. Thank you to everyone at Breakthrough for helping provide a path to achieve our dreams for a college education. And, thank you to each of you for your support to make this incredible experience possible.