The organizer of the event I was covering rushed over when I entered, and said one of the students there claimed to know me.
“She says you changed her life,” said Debra Kennard, a board member of the Scholarship Foundation of St. Louis, the nonprofit hosting the event. About 300 people had gathered to recognize students who had benefited from the organization’s work.
I had no idea who Kennard was talking about, but followed her through the crowd. As soon as I saw Andrea Perez and her mother, there was no hesitation.
“Oh my God!” I shrieked as I threw my arms around the mom. (Perez asked me not to use her parents’ names.) It had been several years since we’d seen each other. When my children were younger and needed constant chauffeuring, she would come over once a month to help me keep up with household chores. Over the years, we developed a friendship. Her children were only a few years older than mine, and she reminded me of my own mom: an immigrant woman working incredibly hard for her family.
Her English was still improving, but we spoke that common language of parental worry and angst. She was particularly concerned about Andrea, then a junior in high school. Her daughter was smart, but more interested in her boyfriend and friends than in her schoolwork, she told me. My eldest child/auntie instinct kicked into overdrive.
“Let me talk to her,” I said. Her mom promised to bring her over soon for a heart-to-heart. True to her word, she showed up with a teenager who seemed mildly annoyed at the prospect of being lectured by a stranger.
Fair enough. What teenager wouldn’t be?
I told Andrea that I was also the oldest child of working-class immigrant parents, and that I knew how hard it was growing up in a nearly all-white, affluent community. Andrea’s attitude immediately changed.
“That was the first time I talked to someone who I could relate to like that,” she said. Looking back, she admits that she had been far more concerned with fitting in with her white peers than her education. Her GPA from her first couple of years of high school was around a 2.0. I told her she was capable of better.
It’s funny how the teenage brain will reject this kind of feedback from a parent, but is willing to consider it from an outsider.
I advised Andrea to ask the school counselor if she could enroll in Missouri’s A+ Scholarship Program, which gives qualified students an opportunity to earn two free years at community college after graduation. She took our conversation to heart. She ended her senior year with a 3.5 GPA and met all the requirements for the scholarship. She would be the first person in her family to go to college.
A month before her classes were scheduled to start, the community college contacted her and told her she was not eligible for the grant because of her DACA status. Republicans in the state passed legislation that required public colleges to charge DACA students international student fees. She had to come up with $4,000 to attend that semester. Her mother picked up more houses to clean in an already packed schedule, and her father took on additional hours of lawn care.
Andrea studied hard, applied for scholarships and transferred to Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, which allows DACA students to pay in-state tuition. She plans to graduate next year with a degree in sociology and apply to law school.
I was touched that Andrea remembered that conversation in my living room from nearly six years ago. But we know who and what really changed Andrea’s life.
Her parents, with their sacrifices and love, changed her life. A scholarship changed her life. Her own persistence and hard work changed her life.
“Can you imagine how proud I am?” her mom asked me as we hugged, that night I unexpectedly reconnected with her.
Yes, I can imagine.