Laura in Leesburg, VA

Laura in Leesburg, VA

My mother had me when she was 23. She took care of me and her extended family at an age when single people her age are out enjoying their young lives. I was born in Cali, Colombia, one of the most dangerous and impoverished cities in the world.

At a very young age, I knew we did not have much. I remember being hungry and wishing there was more food. I overheard many discussions about the need for money. I did not know exactly how money would fix things, but I did know that money was what we needed.

One day, with good news from the Embassy, we traveled to the United States with the hopes of a new future. We were on American soil facing the same challenges we faced in Colombia, but in a new country far away from the familiarity afforded by our family. This was scary and uncertain, but I remained hopeful. In the U.S., we rented a one-room basement apartment with a lonely single bed.

Our car was a white Toyota van resembling something out of Scooby Doo. This car represented me on my journey. It never worked perfectly, it was not eye-catching, but nonetheless, it was the most valuable item we owned. We kept multiple jugs of water on hand to cool it off when it broke down. Similarly, my mother often reminded me that I, too, was valuable, and I never doubted her love and encouragement. Nevertheless, society never failed to remind me of my imperfections and the prejudices that would serve to influence my performance academically and socially. I did not speak English well, and I was looked at as a double minority-Hispanic and female.

Where I come from in Colombia, women are discouraged from having aspirations and goals beyond caring for their family. My struggle was to steer myself away from the road I was expected to travel because I knew that I would have to rewrite this journey if I wanted a life different from the one I was born into. This car has encountered several roadblocks along the way yet has still managed to keep moving forward. I am that car, with all of its flaws, but still with the potential to persevere. The jugs of water represent the people who were there to “fix” what could have potentially derailed me from achieving my goals. One of those special people was Dr. Kagan.

During my sophomore year, the science fair had just been removed from the biology curriculum. This posed a significant roadblock, as I had no other means to complete the science fair project I started in ninth grade. Unlike most of my classmates, I was eager to see my project to completion. I approached one of the AP Biology teachers, Dr. Kagan, and asked if he would mentor me. Initially he was confused that someone would want to participate in the Science Fair for fun, but then gladly supported me. Dr. Kagan had just cooled off my overheated car.

I stayed after school to culture bacteria, and slowly saw my project come alive. Now my car was speeding down the road and soon, I was competing in the Regional Science Fair where I presented my research and earned the opportunity to display my ideas and hard work. I went on to win the Young Aspiring Scientist Award as the only underclassmen to participate in the Science Fair at my school. This event represents one of many moments in my life when I have had to overcome roadblocks.

Despite the challenges and times I felt defeated, I have been able to push myself to new limits with the help of people like my mother and Dr. Kagan. I am determined to keep my car moving by breaking the cycle of poverty, giving back to my community, and becoming the first college graduate in my family.