By Rachel Lopez
Summer vacation was finally here. Freedom. No more class, no more studying, and no more middle school! Well for everyone except Angelica Cristobal. Instead of spending her summer carefree, lounging on the couch watching novelas, Angelica voluntarily joined the Supporting Our Leaders (SOL) 8 week Summer Learning Academy (she also “volunteered” her younger sister, Yolanda). She had never heard of the SOL Program before, but she really wanted to do something, anything over the summer.
The first day of program was a warm June day. One of those clear blue sky, cloud free, light breeze kinds of days. Perfect. As Angelica nervously stepped off the Rapid bus and onto Grand Valley State University’s (GVSU) Pew Campus she wasn’t sure what to expect. The sun was bright and butterflies were filling her stomach. No matter what thoughts raced through her mind, she had no idea that this would be one of best decisions she ever made. Never in her wildest dreams would she have fathomed that 5 years, 2 months, and 3 days later she would be walking on that same campus. This time as GVSU college student…
Angelica is the oldest of three kids. With two younger sisters looking up to her she has always felt an enormous amount of pressure to be a worthy role model; to be someone that her sisters could look up to, someone that her parents could be proud of. Let’s face it, the oldest sibling is always the role model, good or bad, whether they want to be or not. Angelica wanted so badly to be the best role model. After all her parents had sacrificed a lot to ensure she would have a better, easier life than they had.
Fleeing high unemployment rates, poverty, and violence, Angelica’s parents emigrated from Guatemala over 20 years ago. They left their families, belongings, and home in hopes of something better. Knowing everything her parents sacrificed to get here and what they continue to endure on a daily basis in order to provide food, shelter, and security for her family, Angelica was determined to make them proud. Determined to let them know that their sacrifices were worth it.
As an 8th grader Angelica was really quiet and didn’t have a lot of friends, but she cared deeply about her grades. “Education is very important to my parents,” she explains. Having only a 3rd grade education, her parents pushed her to succeed in school. “They never missed school conferences and were always checking up on my grades,” chuckles Angelica.
Angelica’s parents are very hardworking, both work 40-50 hours each week in different factories. “I don’t see my dad very much, only on weekends, because he works so much.” They work hard to provide the best future for their three daughters.
One blistering hot summer Angelica remembers going with her mom to work in the fields picking blueberries. “Even though it was only a couple of days, I’ve never worked so hard in my life. It was horrible, the sun was so hot and there were bugs everywhere. It was too much pressure to pick the best ones and do it very quickly.” This eye-opening experience was a turning point for Angelica, “I knew if I didn’t finish school that this was where I would end up. From there on out I was focused on education and getting through college so that I could give back to my parents.”
Even though her parents valued her education they struggled to navigate the school system. They were unsure how to help her succeed, so they got involved with the SOL Program too. “My dad says the Hispanic Center changed our lives. He has already promised that my youngest sister will join SOL once she’s old enough,” reports Angelica, smiling.
Over the course of five years in the SOL Program Angelica participated in summer learning academies, after-school tutoring, college preparation activities, leadership development programs, paid work experiences, mentoring, and countless field trips. She also volunteered for the Hispanic Festival, food trucks, picking up trash, and community events. Her parents participated in college access workshops, academic enrichment meetings, and conferences, such as the Dia de la Mujer Conference and National Council of La Raza’s Líderes Summit in Los Angeles, CA.
Angelica says that the “Escalera: Taking Steps to Success” program was one of the most helpful. “We had workshops every week about scholarships. It pushed us to fill out as many college applications as possible, and helped us fill out the FAFSA,” recalls Angelica. “My parents were terrified of me going to college. They didn’t understand the process and weren’t sure how we could afford it. Now they feel much better. They still miss me though.”
In the spring of 2015 Angelica graduated from Innovation Central with a 3.6 GPA. As she walked proudly across the stage, a gold cord around her neck, she smiled at her parents. A silent thank you and salute to their sacrifices and unwavering support. One year later, she is finishing her freshman year at Grand Valley State University. Majoring in Nursing and minoring in Spanish, her academics haven’t faltered and she maintains a solid 3.61 GPA.
Angelica isn’t just breaking down barriers, she’s shattering them. As the first person in her family to graduate high school and go to college she’s paving the way for other young Latinas yearning for more. “I’ve wanted to go to Grand Valley since I was in 8th grade. I wasn’t sure I could make it, so now that I’m here it feels like a dream come true,” Angelica exclaims, grinning ear to ear.
Angelica lives in Copeland Dorms and is very active on campus. She is a part of the Latino Student Union, Pre-Nursing Association, and the Promise Partners Mentoring Collaboration. She even has a part-time job at the Laker Store, a position she obtained through the SOL’s “Youth Employment Initiative”. Even though she is living and working on campus, Angelica still makes her way back to the Hispanic Center every Friday so that she can tutor SOL students. “Math is my favorite subject and I want to teach others what I know. I like helping out and giving back,” she beams.
Angelica believes that the SOL Program is more than just academics, “All of the SOL staff were very helpful, especially Rachel and Ricardo. Rachel always helped me out, talking to me about my future, grades, and college. She helped me break out of my shell. Ricardo constantly pushes me and my sister. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go to college right after high school, but he kept encouraging me to go.”
Angelica’s journey is far from over, in the future she wants to be an ER nurse at a local hospital in Grand Rapids, close to her family and community. She aspires to continue her education and obtain a Master’s degree and possibly even her PhD. When asked how she thinks her life would be different if she hadn’t joined the SOL Program, she responds quickly without missing a beat, “Life would be really difficult. I probably wouldn’t be in college. The Hispanic Center changed my life for the better.”
Rachel Lopez is the Director of Youth and Parent Services at the Hispanic Center. She currently resides in Wyoming, MI with her husband and twin daughters, Sofia and Isabella. In her “free time” she enjoys traveling, eating chocolate, and reading on her patio.
Photo Caption: Angelica Cristobal, now a freshman at Grand Valley State University, was the first person in her family to graduate high school and enter college. She has been an active member in the Supporting Our Leaders (SOL) Youth Program since 2011.