Jennifer Rodriguez is a recent graduate of Manor Senior High School Class of 2020, and has been part of the Breakthrough program since she was in 6th grade. This coming fall, Jennifer will attend the University of Texas at Austin where she will pursue a degree in neuroscience.
I am one of thousands of first-generation college aspirants in Central Texas navigating my high school senior year in the age of Coronavirus. This is my story.
As a kindergartner I dreamed of becoming a doctor. I don’t know exactly where this started, but I know how it grew. As the years went by, I watched a lot of Grey’s Anatomy. Of course I liked the drama, but I was really intrigued by the precision and surgical process. By the time I got to high school, I knew I wanted to be a cardio or neuro surgeon. Breakthrough, a program for first-generation college aspirants that I joined in 6th grade, created a pathway to help get me there.
Dorothy, my Breakthrough advisor, helped me get an internship at St. David’s Hospital as part of Breakthrough’s Summer Options Program. In this volunteer role, I staffed the reception desk, answered and directed calls, helped discharge patients and escorted them to the labs. I loved the responsibility and the interaction with both the nursing staff and patients. Although I was taking dual credit courses and balancing volunteer hours and my school activities, I managed to get it all done. My path had become more clear: I would be a pre-med student. That was the plan.
Then everything changed in a day.
At first, the COVID-19 pandemic didn’t seem real at all. But when Manor ISD shifted to distance learning, I panicked. All the dreams and plans I made felt threatened. How would the school year end? Would I keep my 4.0? I began to realize how many things I take for granted: Driving to school, seeing friends, going to class, doing homework. I missed the structure school provided. I missed my friends and my extracurriculars – band, National Honor Society, soccer, and cross country. But this was not a choice.
Stuck inside, my parents and grandparents grew increasingly concerned with the threats looming outside our door. The 24-hour news cycle, constantly on as my family grasped for some snippets of truth to cling onto, fueled the fear and uncertainty brewing in our home. Fear quickly led to a total lack of motivation and increased stress. That’s when Dorothy texted me to let me know we would tackle this like so many obstacles before: together.
The stress of everything was taking a toll on me and I had to make a decision. So, I started watching less news, ultimately deciding it is better to be informed but not saturated by all the negativity. Breakthrough set up a virutal classroom as a space where graduatiing seniors could all come together with our advisors to talk about the college process, how to stay productive, and express how we were feeling during this time. This was incredibly beneficial for me as I voiced my questions and concerns. And it was a place to share some great news: I would be attending the University of Texas at Austin.
After that, Dorothy led my family through virtual senior decision meetings, where we discussed financial aid options, scholarship opportunities and top choices for college. Although these usually take place in-person, that wasn’t possible, but Breakthrough still made it happen. Unfortunately, that’s how we found out I needed additional financial assistance to attend college in the fall. At the same time my mom’s work hours were being cut because of COVID-19 closures. Again, the world felt like it was crashing down on me. But, Dorothy reminded us in her calming way that we are in this together.
Dorothy helped us find scholarships to keep my dreams on track. She explained so much about how college and financial aid works. My mom speaks English well, but some of the details of college acceptance and tuition are so detailed that they barely make sense to even native speakers. Because my mom did not attend college, there was even more to explain and lots to learn. Thankfully, Dorothy was our guide.
Since kindergarten, my dreams have been closely tied to my college education. This fall I will take the next steps toward becoming a doctor as a freshman neuroscience student at the University of Texas. In 2024 I will become the first person in my family to earn a college degree.
Although this is my story, it is not unqiue to me. First-generation college students walk a line no one we know has ever traveled. The road can be lonely, already filled with its unique challenges. The changes to every day life as a result of COVID-19 has added new obstacles to our path. Now, the whole world is facing a universe of unknowns. But for those of us, from sixth grade through college seniors, who are lucky enough to be part of the Breakthrough Central Texas program, we have the confidence that whatever lies ahead, we are not alone.