I come from a family of three. I have one younger brother and a hard-working mom who came to this country to escape the violence of her homeland. Growing up it felt like the path I was destined to take had been pre-determined by the ethnicity, geography and the income level I was born into. For the most part, as I grew up I did not fight the life assigned to me. That all changed one day in 7th grade when a new student transferred into Bedichek Middle School. This was unusual at our school. Most of us had grown up in the same low-income neighborhood around South First and William Cannon, where you can buy aguas frescas, corn in a cup, and make friends with colorful characters in the less glorious and talked-about section of South Austin. We were told we’d go to high school together and have similar lives. Yet, on this day it somehow felt like some of our lives might change. Not one to be left behind and excited to meet someone new, I quickly made friends with this new stranger who gloated about a program called Breakthrough.

This new student told me all about this program held at UT Austin, kind of like a summer camp he said, where kids and adults cheered at the top of their lungs at 8 in the morning, did extra homework over the summer, and went on field trips. Curious, I attended an after-school info session about Breakthrough and decided to submit an application. The promise of helping students go to college intrigued me. Even though society expected me to end up like most low-income students do, dropping out of high school and working a low-paying job, something within me knew there was more to my life than that.  But, as a first-gen student, I had no idea how to change my situation, let alone how to get to college. Breakthrough seemed like the perfect road for me.

My summers with Breakthrough are some of my most cherished memories from my youth, but it wasn’t until high school when I grasped that it was much more than a summer program. In high school, Breakthrough played an integral role in making sure I stayed on track to achieve my college dreams.  With Breakthrough’s support, I was able to attend the Liberal Arts and Science Academy (LASA) in East Austin. LASA is one of the best high schools in Texas and in the nation. Upon arriving at LASA my grades severely suffered. Coming from an under-resourced middle school, I was not prepared for the academic rigor of my new magnet school. I went from being an all A student to a student that was lucky to get a C-. I began to shut myself off from others and not care about school. I avoided my Breakthrough advisor Andrea, and anyone who would pry too much into my personal life. On top of my troubles at school, there were domestic violence issues in our home, my family ended up becoming homeless and my father was deported. My grades slipped from C’s to F’s.

The last thing on my mind was school. Finally, I could not hold it in any longer. I broke down and told Andrea about my situation. Without a second thought, she hugged me and reassured me everything would be okay, connected me to resources, counseling, and was my support system when I felt like life was not worth the hassle. My grades and my life slowly began improving. Without her and Breakthrough I’m not sure I would be here today.

Soon after I began to apply to colleges, with the help of Andrea and my college coach Jolie. I ultimately enrolled at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio. Andrea’s love and kindness went so far that she volunteered to drive me and even rented a U-Haul to move me into school. My childhood dream of attending college finally came true. The transition to college academically was actually quite easy. I excelled in all of my classes. What LASA didn’t, nor anyone could prepare me for, however, was how moving away would impact my family.

Although my family was supportive of my higher education goals, they experienced my departure to college as a desire to forget them and change who I was. At first I went home a lot, but as I got more involved in school those weekly visits became bi-monthly, then monthly and finally once every two months. This distance put a strain on my relationship with my family and friends. I also felt strangely guilty for being one of the “lucky ones” to make it to college while many of my old friends stayed back home to work and take care of their families. I couldn’t understand why they weren’t in college and why they weren’t having the same experiences.

While my friends and family were back home, here I was, enjoying a multitude of life-changing opportunities. Breakthrough helped me find various internships, at DLA Piper International Law Firm and at Accenture, through the Future Focus program. St. Mary’s, in turn, helped me connect with various programs that allowed me to travel all around the country all free of cost. My eyes have seen a lot of things that most kids in my situation don’t get to. I was granted incredible opportunities and it felt unfair. What made me so different? I have never felt any more special than anyone in my community. In order to avoid the guilt and confusion, I adopted two different personas: the Austin girl who never spoke of college, and the college girl that wanted nothing more than to travel and try new things.  I worked hard to make these two versions of me compatible with each other but at times it was too hard.

Yet, despite my inner conflicts, my professional life kept presenting opportunities. Last summer I landed a spot with the competitive Google BOLD Internship Program in California. When I left for San Francisco I was on my own for the first time, like REALLY, and suddenly able to escape the two personas. The time away helped me come to terms with my identity by speaking with other students like me and with professionals in my industry. I came to understand that it was okay to have ambitions, as long as I made sure that I never forgot my roots or lost my desire to help my community or my family. I returned to Texas with a newfound appreciation for my roots and a crystallized vision for my future.

However, the reality of graduation still has not registered. But I know it’s a big deal. Only 11% of low-income, first-generation students will obtain a college degree within six years of graduating high school. This statistic has hovered over me for a good portion of my life. Realizing that I have beaten the odds, being more than a statistic, seems surreal.  Today I’m still attempting to understand why I am—no why WE are some of the lucky ones. I am no longer running away from my past or my given identity, but instead challenging it and what society expects from “kids like us .” I became a political science major with an art minor, the Student Government Association President of St. Mary’s, the St. Mary’s Homecoming Queen (which is more than a popularity contest), a Presidential Award recipient, which is the highest honor given to only 14 students graduating each year from across the undergraduate, graduate and law school, and graduated Summa Cum Laude.

Breakthrough changed my life in the best way possible. It did not only do what it promised to do, get me to and through college, but delivered so much more. They helped me gain confidence, and find my calling. It is now part of my mission to ensure I can help others find their success in college and in life. I will not let my life be determined by my ethnicity, the income level I was born into or my geography. It’s also not surprising that I will not be defined by my degree either, which is why this August I will be be packing my things, including my Political Science and Art diplomas, and moving to California to start my career with Google. After that who knows?

I want to thank my mom and brother for putting up with my never-ending passions and ambitions that, once again, are taking me away from you physically. Of course I will remain with you in heart and spirit. Also, to every mentor and advisor I’ve had throughout my academic career, and to Breakthrough for believing in me and all the students like me. It’s because of you that I stand here today. Best of luck to my graduating peers and to all the ones that come after us.