Written by guest writer Angelica Mantilla, an MVHS alum, who is currently studying at UC Berkeley.
Like many immigrants, my mother and I came to the United States with the hope of creating a better future: to live the fabled “American dream,” a dream taught to us through the stories of our friends who had been there, and who told us that, in America, with hard work and perseverance anything was possible. We made that dream a reality, and my story in this country has been a testament to that concept: that a life driven by hard work and perseverance can lead anywhere. I came to America from Colombia when I was 16 years old, and at the time I knew, as they say in my country “not a peep of English.” We came first to the city of East Palo Alto where I attended Menlo-Atherton High for 5 months. Despite knowing very little about the American Educational system, something seemed wrong. Students separated themselves by race, social class, and academic skill level; walking down the halls I didn’t understand why the Latinos only associated with other Latinos. Adapting to such a new environment at 16 years old without knowing the language, the culture, or anyone else besides my mother was challenging, and I found a refuge in my academic pursuits. Teachers and textbooks offered me a much needed safe space. I spent 5 months at Menlo-Atherton before, one night, my mother and I were forced to leave our home abruptly and go to a shelter in San Jose. We didn’t have a dollar between us when we got there. I would tell you why we had to leave, but in truth, the details are unimportant. Suffice it to say our safety was threatened. I have chosen to forget what happened that night, in order to make room for the happier memories that followed.
By the time I was 17 years old I had taken a job at a local restaurant in the city of Mountain View to help my mother pay the bills. I worked 25 hours a week, attended school, and spent every extra moment learning English. My experience at Mountain View High was the complete opposite of my previous school. At MVHS I found not just a safe space, but teachers who genuinely cared about me. Although working part time and keeping up with schoolwork prevented me from extracurriculars, sports, or anything resembling a normal student’s social life, doing both at the same time ultimately taught me values and skills that could never have been learned in a classroom. For example, learning the value and significance of things many young people take for granted. Working allowed me to put myself in my mother’s shoes, who had always had to work to give me what I need. My work environment also showed me what life was like for other immigrants, and taught me the value of legal immigration status. Learning about their lives and hearing their stories not only fueled my desire to move forward, but also my desire to continue studying. And while other kids my age went to high school dances, I worked Friday nights to help my mother pay the rent.
During my last year of high school I learned about the AVID program, and while I already knew I’d be attending community college, AVID taught me about the University system in the United States, a system that neither my mother nor I had any familiarity with. With only two years of English, without any financial aid, and without legal immigration status it would be impossible for me to attend a University. I went to Foothill community college for three years with the help of various scholarships I received my senior year. I was awarded scholarships from the Burwen Foundation, MVLA School District, POE, and several others that supported me financially, and guided me through my academic career. Now, hard work and perseverance are crucial to success, but sometimes a little luck is also quite handy. Luck, or being in the right place at the right time, however you want to call it. But to be in that right place at that right moment, you must be present in all moments, ready to seize an opportunity, and hard work is a fast track to opportunity. Today I am a Senior at UC Berkeley, a semester away from graduating with honors in legal studies. And thanks to the scholarships I received in High School and government financial aid, I no longer have to cram every free hour with part time jobs. Now I can spend my time focused on my classes, career, and even a hobby or two. For example, working with a non-profit organization in San Francisco that works to provide legal aid for undocumented students. And still, my journey continues as I prepare to apply to begin law school next year.
To anyone who reads this article, let me offer this advice: fill out scholarship applications early, and always seek the help you need, my story is proof that it is never very far away. I don’t pretend to promote the idea of “the American Dream,” in all honesty I don’t believe that it exists. But what I do believe with total certainty is that dedication, perseverance, and honesty will get you far.