The email caused North Dallas High School’s Janet R. to scream so loud everyone in Starbucks wondered if she was okay. Earlier that afternoon, Janet had felt very discouraged after being rejected by one of the colleges she had applied to. Now, before her eyes appeared a message from Stanford University: “Congratulations, you’ve been accepted.”
“I applied to 45 schools or something like that, and I’ve been accepted to 41. However, this was the one that I was most excited about,” she said. “Getting accepted to Stanford University and later receiving the news that I got a full ride reaffirms my hard work. It was just a beautiful moment.”
Janet arrived in the U.S. from Mexico four years ago as an unaccompanied minor. Her original goal was to work for a while, make some money and then go back home. However, having no previous education, not speaking English, and facing housing and food insecurity, she soon realized how much the odds were against her.
“I came here not to study but to work. I wasn’t raised in an environment where school was important. The only thing I knew how to do was to work, to clean,” she said. “But I soon realized I didn’t know the basic stuff you need to know to have a decent job.”
Finding a safe place
To catch up on those basic skills, Janet knew she needed to attend school, so she entered Dallas ISD, first at Thomas Jefferson High School and then at North Dallas High School. “It has been the most beautiful and the most frustrating thing to this day. It was scary because it was a lot of work,” she admits.
When things got very challenging between school and her living situation–which sometimes included finding a place to sleep inside the campus–Janet considered dropping out of school and returning to Mexico or going to foster care. It was at this moment that she found a school community that believed in her and was determined to go above and beyond to help her succeed.
“While I was homeless, the school became my safe place. I saw in school and the classroom somewhere where I could just be myself,” she recalls. “I remember that one of my teachers, Willie Ruiz said, ‘This kid is not going anywhere but school.’”
When her teachers realized she didn’t have a place she could call home, many of them offered her a place to stay, provided her with essentials, and effectively became her family and support. Eventually, she settled down with two Dallas ISD educators she affectionately now refers to as her parents, Paige Zumberge and Erika Vigil.
“We believe in offering every kid an opportunity to grow,” said Ms. Vigil, now assistant principal at Thomas Jefferson High School. “Janet has grown so much in these few years, from being a quiet kid to whom school wasn’t a priority to being someone who is not afraid to take risks and branch out.”
Growing and thriving
From there on, she began a process of personal and academic growth that has been noticed by her teachers and peers. Her teachers at North Dallas High School highlight her commitment to exceptional academic performance and her participation in a wide range of extracurricular activities, including being president of the Student Council and a member of the school’s softball team.
Bernardo Velez, AP English Language and Literature teacher at North Dallas High School, recalls that despite being new to the school, the country, and the English language, Janet took responsibility for her learning and sought regular feedback from her teachers to ensure she was meeting–and even exceeding–expectations.
What lies ahead
When choosing Stanford, the need for belonging and finding the tools to help other students like herself weighed heavily in Janet’s decision. “Stanford is the one that feels like home. I feel like I can find people there where I can make a great impact not only in my community but worldwide,” she said.
Janet plans to major in either political science or computer science–following her cybersecurity pathway at the Career Institute North–or combine her strengths in both fields. Either way, her goal is to help inspire her community and let others see that everything is possible if you put your mind to it.
“I started thinking about the impact I could make if I studied computer science to change the educational system to give more opportunities to students like me. I would also like to advocate for other people and make a change. So I feel like if I combine both of those, I can make a huge difference,” she said.
Looking back, Janet knows how different her path is from what she had planned a few years ago. And she is on her way to achieving even higher goals through her work and determination.
“Dallas ISD has not only given me the best teachers that I could have or the support I needed but has also given me a family,” Jane said. “Before, I didn’t see school as a possibility, but now I know where my place is, and it is me choosing higher education.”