I never imagined I’d leave my beautiful home country of Venezuela. My dad was a pharmacist while my mom was a teacher. My brother and I were in a school we loved. However, as the political climate of Venezuela worsened, so did the living conditions. Safety was no longer something expected by citizens trying to live their daily lives. My parents knew there was a chance of a better life in the United States, so when I was six years old they left everything they ever knew behind for us.
At the time, we had no idea how tough the journey would be. Or how something as simple but powerful as a school choice scholarship would change everything for the better.
At first, we moved to Puerto Rico, which was quite an adjustment. My brother and I were in a new school that wasn’t the best. We missed our home, but my parents consoled us by telling us all the sacrifices we’ve made would pay off in the end. It was hard to understand because at the time I only felt sorrow. Family is an important part of our culture, and we left everyone. We didn’t know when we would see grandparents and friends again.
Eventually we made it to St. Petersburg, Florida, and the adjustment was even harder. My parents, both highly educated, struggled to find work, and had to take up menial labor jobs. They were used to making ends meet, but now they needed to work extremely hard and even take up two jobs each. This was very hard to see and changed the structure of my family. We didn’t spend weekends with grandparents or sleep overs with cousins. Holidays felt empty without everyone
Soon enough, it was time to start school. Because we moved so often in a short amount of time, and because I didn’t speak English, I quickly fell behind academically. My brother and I spent a lot of time alone because our parents were at work. They always made sure to tell us to try our hardest in school because they firmly believed education was the pathway to a better life. But they soon realized the school system here was completely different than what they had known.
I went to public school through fifth grade, but my parents knew middle and high school were going to be crucial for my future, and that some schools were rough for kids like me. The schools in our area performed poorly and were known to have issues with violence and drug use among students. My parents wanted to give me the best they could, but they couldn’t afford private school.
Then my mom found out about Step Up for Students* and the scholarships it offered. That changed the trajectory of my life forever.
At first, I was against going to a private school because I had no idea what they were like in the United States. I was scared I wouldn’t fit in. Looking back, I realized going to a private school was the best thing that ever happened to me. My mom valued private education so much that we moved to the other side of the county for my brother and I to be closer to our new schools. For the first time in my life I could participate in after school activities. I no longer had to go home by myself and wait for my parents to come home. I was given the opportunity to learn clarinet and sing in choir.
What wasn’t so obvious at first was that the opportunity to go to private school had broadened my horizons. I learned there was better for myself and I could strive for greatness. I learned that my socio-economic background wouldn’t hold me back. I was able to make new friends and meet new people. My middle school worked with me and wanted to me to achieve great things. The teachers gave me one-on-one time to help me overcome my struggles, especially in math.
Once I got to high school, I became more aware of the gift private school had given my life. I didn’t have to witness violence in school. I wasn’t exposed to drug use. My teachers knew who I was, and they held me accountable. We took field trips and gave back to our community by doing food drives, fundraisers, and volunteering at local schools and parishes. I got the chance to go to mass every month. I got to participate in a sport, softball, and I became team captain.
It was harder to do things such as skipping school, or not doing work, as my friends in public school could easily do. Some of them even dropped out of school. I now understand that my high school, Clearwater Central Catholic High School, made it extremely difficult to drop out because everything my teachers did helped me to succeed. The friends I made also helped me to succeed. They pushed me to do my best.
My schools changed me. The experiences and opportunities they gave me were so incredibly different. They put me on the path to success.
Now, I work at Step Up for Students to help other children like me have the best opportunity to succeed. I will be organizing scholarship students who have recently graduated and help them become advocates for this program. I am so proud to be able to give back.
*Step Up For Students is a nonprofit that administers four state-supported scholarship programs. It also publishes this blog. For more information about the SUFS Alumni Network, click here.