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If It Doesn’t Challenge You, It Doesn’t Change You

“I am persistent in attaining excellence.”


I didn’t give a lot of thought to these words when I was seven years old.  Sure, I would recite them with my classmates during Launch every morning, but I didn’t really understand or appreciate their power. But seven years later – after many late nights studying for final exams, overwhelming college applications, and stressful decisions – I understand why I was taught about persistence at such a young age.


The path to college isn’t easy, especially for kids from disadvantaged communities. Even with a great education – which is often the first and biggest barrier for people in my community – we confront obstacles all along the way. My parents didn’t go to college so they could not help me navigate the admissions process. I didn’t have money for test prep and summer programs. And I knew from a young age that complicated financial aid formulas would drive my ability to attend college. If I was going to break down barriers that my parents, cousins, and neighbors faced, I would need to be persistent.


And I was.


This fall, I will be attending the University of California at Riverside – to major in biology and pursue my dream of becoming a pediatrician.


My path to college started one Sunday when my mom stepped into a crowded room after mass to hear Mr. Smith describe a new school that was opening in downtown San Jose. I was attending my local district school at the time. It was less than a block from my house and seemed fine to me. I had lots of friends, my teachers were nice (some were even old family friends), and I was getting good grades. My siblings had gone to the same school and I thought they turned out okay. But my mom was frustrated. She didn’t feel like my teachers challenged me. There was no talk of college or expectation that kids in my community could compete with the wealthy kids across town. My mom wanted better for me and my little brother.


Two months later, I started second grade at a new school across town called “Rocketship One.” This meant waking up 40 minutes earlier to make it to school on time. I remember complaining from the back seat as we drove to the other side of town, every day. Once we got to school, the day was a lot longer than I was used to, which was hard to adjust to.


But my mom believed it was worth it and was persistent to make it happen. She changed her work schedule to make sure we were there on time every single day. Why? Because Rocketship was different. My mom could see that I wouldn’t just get passed from one grade to the next at Rocketship. I would be challenged and expected to succeed.


Stephanie, one of her favorite Rocketship teachers Ms. Guerrero, and Stephanie’s father

Banners from Harvard, Stanford, and UNC that greeted us every morning. Our classes were known by the mascots of our teachers’ alma mater. Go Banana Slugs!  And the first time I ever stepped onto a college campus was as an elementary school student at Rocketship.I was completely stunned. I remember the tall trees surrounding UC Santa Cruz and going to the top of the tower at Stanford. Every time we visited a college on a field trip – from Stanford to UC Santa Cruz to UC Berkeley – I couldn’t get over my excitement to someday be a student there. I never knew people like me could go to these beautiful, elite schools. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this was how Rocketship helped me set a vision for my future.


Realizing that vision would take a lot of work. My mom used to show off my homework packet to my aunts and uncles whose kids had few homework requirements. I wished at times, that I could be playing instead of doing my homework. Later in high school, I saw my cousins out at the movies while I stayed home to work on college applications. Completing 13 different applications, making sense of financial aid forms, and writing different personal statements while staying on top of my AP courses and higher level science classes was sometimes overwhelming. But being persistent was a part of my character as a Rocketeer. I knew that persistence towards excellence would pay off in the long run.


I am so proud that I was accepted to seven different, high-quality colleges and had the privilege to choose to attend the University of California at Riverside. I’m excited for the diversity of students, the opportunity to experience a new community, and the high academic rigor my college will offer me. I know there will continue to be challenges that will require persistence – from taking organic chemistry to maintaining enough financial aid to missing my family far away from school. But, as I learned way back in second grade, “if it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you.”


At college, in medical school, and every day when I see my patients, I will continue to be persistent in attaining excellence.


Stephanie graduated from Presentation High School in San Jose in June and will attend the University of California, Riverside next fall, majoring in biology.

Published on June 28, 2018

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