When he moved to the United States from El Salvador in 2002, CDI Scholar Francisco Barrera (CDI class of 2007) faced a difficult transition. As a native Spanish speaker, he often found himself struggling to understand his teachers at Wheaton High School. In his own words, he felt “intimidated and uncomfortable” whenever he was asked to solve problems on the board. His ESOL classes helped, but outside of the classroom, adjusting to life in his new, faster-paced country tested him. As a result, his grades suffered and he ended his freshman year in disappointing fashion.
At home, however, Francisco had a powerful ally in his mother, Rosa. She had been unable to complete her own schooling back home in El Salvador, but she knew the value of a solid education, and she worked long hours to give Francisco and his siblings every opportunity to study. She told them, “There are many paths you can take in life, but only educating yourself guarantees success.” Though his freshman year results had been discouraging, he took his mother’s words to heart.
With her encouragement, Francisco enrolled in Honors and AP courses during his sophomore year. He expected his grades to drop, but instead found that the more difficult classes actually stimulated him. Determined to succeed, he worked hard and his grades soon began to improve, and he became an Honor Roll student his final three years. At the same time, he participated in clubs like Wheaton Works and the Vietnamese Club, ran cross country and track, and joined the tennis team, where he worked his way to 2nd singles his senior year. Outside of school he volunteered at the Gilchrist Center for Cultural Diversity, serving 360 hours of community service as a mentor and translator for immigrant families.
But what Francisco wanted more than anything was to go to college. Through their excited interest, his science teachers had shown him how to love the subject, and now he wanted to do the same for others. Unfortunately, even with his excellent transcript, he didn’t know how to make that goal a reality. At CDI, Francisco learned how to prepare for the SAT, how to create a college list and apply to colleges, and how to get the most scholarships and financial aid. Thanks to the one-on-one mentoring he received from CDI counselors, Francisco was accepted at six colleges—Randolph Macon, St. Mary’s, University of Vermont, Dickinson, Hood, and Goucher—and was offered $162,000 in financial aid.
“CDI taught me that I had options,” he says. “I got a full ride at Goucher through its Educational Opportunity Program for minority students. Without CDI I would not have known about that program.”
Today, Francisco is one of CDI’s first seven college graduates. With a B.A. in Biology from Goucher College, he is fulfilling his dream, teaching 7th and 8th grade Science at Southwest Academy Magnet School in Baltimore County. Because of the support he received from his mother, he knows how important it is for adults to stress education, and he’s taking that message to the next generation. In the classroom, he challenges his students through hands-on activities that generate interest in the topic, as his teachers had once lit a spark in him. Taking a page out of the CDI playbook, he wants his students to make discoveries by themselves, knowing that in order for them to succeed they need to be fully invested in their own education—building a strong foundation, one brick at a time.
Just like Francisco.
A version of this post originally appeared in CDI’s Winter Newsletter.