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On the road to College

Cassandra Martinez, a 17-year-old American of Mexican descent, not only has to do her homework and start preparing to go to college, but must become a second mother to her younger siblings.
29 Sep 2016 – 02:55 PM EDT
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Duties that forge a person’s character

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Being a second mom does not prevent Cassandra from having a great performance in her studies

It is not easy being a senior high school student. On top of focusing on getting good grades, you must work on finding those colleges that are best suited for your career, wishes, aspirations and possibilities.

Yet, some young people have to take on additional responsibilities. This is the case for Casandra Martínez, a 17-year old twelfth grader at South San Antonio High School, in San Antonio, Texas.

Casandra is a U.S. citizen and daughter to Mexican parents. She has very good grades, plays soccer and, according to her professors and counselors, is extremely well behaved. “Casandra never misses a class, always finishes her homework, she has never given us any problem,” says her high school counselor Judy Perez.

Yet, despite her tender age, she already has family obligations. On many occasions she has to take care of her three younger siblings because her mother, Gloria, works several hours waiting tables at a Mexican restaurant. According to Casandra, Gloria works five days a week and also weekends.

Gloria has raised her three children on her own, making an enormous sacrifice. She frequently has to also work nights. This is when Casandra has to become a second mother to her three little brothers, dropping and picking them up at school, cooking their dinner and cleaning the house.

Casandra does not complain. On the contrary, she says that taking care of her brothers has been good to strengthen her character. At first sight she looks like a quiet, shy teen, but a few minutes talking to her are enough to realize that she is very focused on what she is pursuing.

Professionally speaking, her immediate aspiration is to become a dental hygienist to be able to get a job that allows her to support her family. After that, she wants to become a dentist.

Her mother, her professors and those who know her well are confident she will succeed because she is a determined youngster who achieves whatever project she pursues. And she is not alone in her dreams: she has the support of her high school counselors and, of course, her mother’s love.

Gloria says she is very proud of her daughter and that she has no idea what she would do without Casandra’s help. She knows that, under the right guidance, her daughter will surely find her own “road to success”.

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FAFSA: The Key to College Acces

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FAFSA: the key to college access for thousands of low-income students

If any of your daughters or sons is a senior in high school, you have surely heard them talking about “FAFSA” and you may not know what that means. FAFSA is one of the many requirements that students must fill out if they need financial aid to study at the university.

“FAFSA” means “Free Application for Federal Student Aid”. According to Ángela Tinajero, of the Project Stay organization, FAFSA is a federal application to help students free of charge, to apply for financing for their higher education.

Casandra Martínez, just like thousands of students around the country, is already getting ready for college, and we will come along with her as she fills out her application.

“It’s asking my name, my home address, when I was born, what grade I’m in, if I’m a US citizen”, explains Casandra.

This application is extremely important for her, since with the salary that her mother, Gloria Rodríguez, earns by working as a waitress in the "Mi Tierra" restaurant in San Antonio, Texas, she could hardly afford to study dental hygiene, and then dentistry.

This form used to be filled out in January, waiting for students’ parents to present their income tax declaration to establish financial need. However, this is no longer necessary, explains Mrs. Tinajero.

“One of the changes that was made in the financial aid application is that one can begin applying on October first, and using income for 2015”.

With this, the recommendation is very simple: fill out the FAFSA application as soon as possible, since without financial aid students and their parents will be responsible for all their college expenses.

This is one more of the many requirements, which are sometimes hard to understand. But at the end of the day it is worthwhile to do this, to continue on one’s “pathway to success”.

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Cassandra assembles her own computer

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The technology gap affects the performance of thousands of students in the US

One might think that in the United States every school-age child has the basic resources for their education. But it's not like that.

Cassandra Martinez, a student at South San High School in San Antonio, Texas, whom we have been following during the current school year, is an example of children who find it harder than others to do their homework because of a lack of resources.

During our latest trip to the Texan city we noticed that Cassandra did not have a computer, and that for her mom, working as a waitress in a restaurant, buying one would mean an unexpected expense that would wreak havoc with her finances.

So the 17-year-old had to stay after class to use the school computers in order to complete her projects and assignments.

That was a big problem for her, considering that she is a very busy teenager. Not only does she have to study, but she belongs to the school's soccer team, helps her mom with the housework, and takes care of her three younger siblings.

When we explained Cassandra’s situation to the staff of Family Strengthening, they told us they could get a free computer for the teenager.

According to them, all Cassandra had to do was to go to the organization’s building, located in the west side of San Antonio, where they would give her all the parts to assemble the device.

According to Laura Mata, director of Family Strengthening, the idea is "to give the kids tools that they can use not only now, but when they continue with their education to graduate from school, go to college, or at their jobs as adults."

Cassandra arrived according to schedule, followed the indications step by step, until finally, after almost an hour, managed to assemble the computer, donated by Kano and Best Buy Tech Center.

Now Cassandra no longer has to stay after school to complete assignments or projects on school computers, and she will be able to concentrate on her studies and her efforts to reach college.

Something to emphasize is that help is always available. The important thing is to look for it.

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Time to get ready for the TSI

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The time for college entrance exams is approaching

In the state of Texas, there is a test called the Texas Success Initiative, better known as the “TSI”, which helps universities and community colleges determine students’ academic level in the areas of Reading, Writing and Mathematics, to place them in the appropriate classes when they begin their higher education.

“Here at South San, we take all the students, all the seniors, to Palo Alto College in October. They apply and then do practice exams. This begins their preparations. Then we tell them: ‘You’ll take your test in January, February or March’”, Charlie Gallardo, Head Counselor at the South San Antonio High School, tells us.

Students can take the exam several times, until they get the score they want. However, it is very important for them to prepare conscientiously and pass the test before beginning their studies, to avoid wasting time and money taking make-up classes, which will not count toward their college or university graduation requirements.

That is why it is so essential for schools to keep their students well informed. When we asked Cassandra Martínez how much she knows about the TSI, the 17-year-old told us that “It’s for entrance into college. Many schools need it to get into a university, and all the seniors are going to take it, but I don’t know when – they’re going to let us know”.

She is well aware of how important this exam is, but confided that she is not ready for it yet. “I still have to study more”, she told us, acknowledging that there are some other students who are further advanced than she is. But no one really has any doubt that Cassandra will do fine. According to her teachers and counselors, this young lady, who wants to become a dental hygienist and then a dentist, is a very serious student, and gets very high grades.

We will be paying plenty of attention to how she does!

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It isn’t so hard to get into the University

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It is not so difficult to get into a four-year institution of higher education

Cassandra Martínez said from the beginning that her intentions to study at a community college for an associate degree as a dental hygienist was to be able to work and help her family out economically.

The idea of studying at a community college had to do with the lack of economic resources to study Dentistry directly at a four-year university –and the lack of information about the financial aid available for students like her.

To make sure that Cassandra really knows what options she has, we decided to ask the management of St. Mary’s University St. Mary’s, in San Antonio, Texas, for help.

Dr. Rosalind V. Alderman, Vice President for Admissions at St. Mary’s, and Ryan Konkright, Admissions Director, were kind enough to meet with Cassandra and with Gloria, her Mother, and explained the options and resources available if this 17-year-old decides to enter a four-year university.

“We explained that the process is not as difficult as people who are the first generation in their families to go to college may think”, said Dr. Alderman.

She says that Cassandra’s concerns and doubts are quite common for thousands of young people, nationwide. Most don’t even know where to begin.

Konkright explained that “this is not a difficult process, but it does require a bit of work. There are resources in the city, here in the University, in your high-schools, that enable them to apply without any problems”.

Completing a four-year degree as soon as possible offers many benefits. One advantage is economic. In Cassandra’s case, if she studied dental hygiene at a community college, she would earn approximately 60,000 dollars a year. However, if she studies Dentistry at the university instead, working hard for another two years, she could begin earning approximately 144, 000 dollars a year. She would have more working opportunities and could even open her own dental clinic.

By the end of the meeting, Cassandra’s outlook had shifted. “They helped me see how many years I have to study to be a dentist, and the difference if I'm dental hygienist, or a dentist. And they showed me how to do the FAFSA”.

The teenager told us that she and her Mother will discuss their options, and that, if studying at a four-year university to graduate as soon as possible as a dentist is beneficial for her future, she will take this into account very seriously.

We will be paying attention to what she decides!

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A very important decision

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Where to pursue higher education is a difficult decision

Cassandra Martínez took several weeks to analyze the possibility of studying Dentistry at a four-year university.

After talking with her Mother, and with her school’s counselors, about the pros and cons, she decided to continue with her original plan, to study at Palo Alto College, a community college where she will take her basic classes and get an associate degree as a dental hygienist.

She says she decided mostly because she wants to be able to begin working as soon as possible. “I think it will be better to get working after finishing two years of college”, she says. Her idea is to begin working sooner, and then go to a university to complete her other two years.

Cassandra has filled in and submitted all her financial aid papers and solicitudes, and now she just has to wait for the answer, to find out how she is going to pay for her education.

At South San High School, in San Antonio, Texas, where Cassandra is finishing her senior year, there is a climate of expectation, because many of her classmates have already received their acceptance letters from the universities they applied to. The lucky young men and women who already know where they will pursue their chosen studies are listed on the wall.

Ana Casillas’ name is on that wall. A few days ago, she received the much-awaited letter from Louisville University, in Kentucky, where she will study business administration, which she will find a way to combine with her passion for horses.

“It was such a surprise and satisfaction – I exploded with happiness!” says this 18-year-old, adding that, at the beginning, she had serious misgivings about where she would get the approximately 40,000 dollars a year she will need in order to make her dream a reality.

But after discussing this with her school counselors and with Mrs. Ángela Tinajero, from the “Project Stay” organization, she feels confident that she will be able to get the money somehow. “There is federal and state aid, there are scholarships from private foundations aside from the school”, explains Mrs. Tinajero, who visits different high schools to counsel students.

The most important part is what Cassandra and Ana are doing. Although they have chosen different directions, they both sought advice and guidance, and now they are “On their way to success”.

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A scholarship for everyone, but few know it

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All kinds of scholarships for all kinds of students. But few ever find out

Checking her computer continuously, and visiting the college center website has become part of Cassandra Martínez’ daily routine. She has to know, as soon as possible, how much federal government scholarship money she will get to help her achieve her short-term goal of becoming a dental hygienist.

The 17-year-old expects that some relatives, mainly her uncle on her mother’s side, can help her with some money. However, she has not taken into consideration the possibility of applying for private scholarships.

Cassandra, like thousands of other students in the United States, didn’t know that there were these scholarships, as Diego Mancha, explains to us. He is a counsellor with Café College, a non-profit organization.

“There are many scholarships, scholarships for just about anything you can imagine. You shouldn’t just apply for one scholarship. You should apply for as many as you can”, he adds.

These scholarships are provided by private companies, community organizations, and churches, among others. Some are granted to students depending on their economic situation, others are based on their grades, and there are others given to students with special talents, such as sports, art or music. There are also scholarships for beneficiaries of the DACA Program, the deferred action program to delay deportation for young people, and for undocumented students.

To think about what scholarships to choose, several points must be taken into account. For example, Diego tells us, the student should decide what to study, and look for available scholarships based on that. If he or she wants to be a doctor, for example, then he or she should look for scholarships in medicine, and if they want to be an attorney, there are specific scholarships for law students, and so on.

It is very important for students to apply for as many scholarships as possible. That will multiply their possibilities of getting several, and bit by bit they can piece together all they need to pay for their college studies.

Let’s say that a school year costs $30,000, and the federal government will give a student only $20,000. If the student can get several private scholarships, for $2,000, $1,000, or even just $500 each, step by step he or she can add up to the remaining $10,000 they need.

According to Café College, every year private companies, churches and community organizations, among others, have about $44 billion available for scholarships. Only about $1.1 billion of that total are used, and all because students don’t apply for this money, due to a lack of information.

One more recommendation by the Café College organization, which is funded by the City of San Antonio, Texas, is for students to apply for scholarships ahead of time, even if they will not graduate from high school for another year or two, because this is the way to prepare in advance for their “way to success"

If you need more information about private scholarships, visit, click on SENIORS, then at the bottom click on SCHOLARSHIPS, where there is a long list of available scholarships.

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Little details that matter

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It’s time to fill out financial aid applications, where every detail counts and there is a lot at stake

Nervous and excited, Cassandra arrived with her mother Gloria to her appointment with the person who will be her guidance counselor at Palo Alto College.

"Here we help them fill out their financial aid applications, to make sure everything is complete," Danielle Esquivel told us, who for more than two decades has been a counselor at Palo Alto College, in San Antonio’s south part of town, in Texas.

Esquivel added that these meetings take place months before students start classes, and help them trace study plans according to their necessities and wishes.

Because when you want to do a short major the plan is different than when the student wants to take basic classes to then transfer to a four-year university.

In Cassandra’s case, she found out she was missing her mother’s tax return information from her FAFSA application. Because her mother was with her at the meeting, and with the help of technology, they immediately added this information to the application.

Cassandra also told us after the meeting that this talk was very useful. "I learned a lot of things, like what classes I need to take to do what I want to do in the future."

Let’s remember that Cassandra wants to become a dental hygienist to then study a full dentist career. “I need to finish all my classes and I think 70 hours to go to another school.”

This first meeting between Cassandra and her future counselor was very useful for this 17-year-old teenage girl, who already has the necessary credits to graduate next june.

She still has to deliver some pending projects, and make up some absences and tardies, since she has had to skip some of these to attend soccer matches. Regardless, with hard work, determination and the right guidance, Cassandra will continue forward on her road to success.

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The beginning of the end

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Grades, attendance, exams: the ingredients to graduate from high school not everyone has. Now what?

Around South San Antonio High School graduation is in the air.

“We are planning for graduation, reviewing grades, attendance, credits and test records”, Judy Pérez tells me, one of the school’s counselors. She tells me that Cassandra has all the requirements she needs to graduate: good grades, a good attendance record, and she has passed all the exams required by the state of Texas, so she will be one of the students graduating with the Class of 2017.

Naturally, this milestone has our 17-year-old very excited and happy, but also a bit nervous and even nostalgic about leaving the life she knows and starting this new stage.

"I won’t be at school with my brothers; I’ll go to college, and I’m going to start working ", she says, smiling and wringing her hands, looking forward to the new challenges ahead.

However, approximately 5% of the seniors at this high school don’t know yet whether they will graduate or not, since many of them do not have all their prerequisites in order.

Ms. Pérez clarifies that it is all a matter of putting all their best effort into it in this closing stretch of the school year, "because, if the issue is attendance, they can make up for that; if the issue is their grades, they still have another three or four weeks; and as for the exams, we are still waiting for their results".

If they do things right in this closing stage, they can graduate from high school like Cassandra. They can get a diploma that will surely open many doors for them, and enable them to continue with higher education, and continue on the "Pathway to Success".

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The end of an era, and the beginning of another

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Although the challenges many Hispanic students face can be insurmountable, graduation day is here, when the sacrifices finally pay up

The full moon and the Joe Freeman stadium in San Antonio, Texas, provided the setting for the ceremony in which Cassandra and 532 more students from South San Antonio High School received their high school diplomas. This marked the end of their pre-college education.

“I am so happy that I am finally going to finish and graduate from high school,” Cassandra said, who was wearing her blue cap and gown, representing South San Antonio High.

Though Cassandra is characteristically serious, her happiness was evident, since graduating means recognition for her dedication and effort. She got high grades, despite the time she devoted to training for her school’s soccer team. She also spent time helping her mother, Gloria, with her younger siblings, taking them to school and to their own sports practices, cooking for them, and cleaning the house when Gloria was at work.

But now all those sacrifices are behind her and have begun to bear fruits for her.

"I am very happy, because I am the first one in my family to graduate from high school, and the first who is going to college", added Cassandra, and this happiness is shared by her mother, Gloria.

Gloria has had to raise her four children, including Cassandra, who is the eldest, by herself.

"I am so proud and so happy. I’m also sad, because she is no longer my little girl,” commented Gloria. “She will be 18 years old next month, a grown woman ".

Of course, Cassandra told us with a smile, she doesn’t want to waste any time, so she will start her higher education immediately, this summer, at the Palo Alto Community College. She is going to pursue her dream of being a dental hygienist so she can work and earn a salary to help her family financially, and then continue studying to become a dentist.

"I hope that she will appreciate this, and do the best that she can with her life. I wish her all the best in this new season of her life that she is about to begin," concluded the proud mother.

Cassandra has a message for those students who are still in their basic education stage, and who may feel overwhelmed by so many obligations: "They should be patient, and know that they are going to be able to make it, and that everything will be over soon ".

She adds that, when graduation time comes, they are going to realize that everything was worth the hard work.

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