When Kenia immigrated to the U.S. from El Salvador alone at just six years old, she was met with a tearful hug from her mother who had arrived a few years earlier. Kenia had been nervous about traveling by herself – “I was this little girl surrounded by all these big grownups” – but the real journey was still ahead.
Starting second grade at a new school with new faces and a new language, Kenia faced constant bullying. “Everybody already knew each other, and I was just put in there and told to learn English, and it was very hard. The other kids told me I didn’t deserve to be there because I was an immigrant.”
But Kenia persevered. As a recent high school graduate heading to Marymount University this fall with both a Presidential Scholarship and DreamUS Scholarship, Kenia said she wouldn’t have been able to reach this point without two important players: her mom and Mary’s Center.
During a school fair nearly four years ago, Kenia and her friends walked up to the Mary’s Center booth. Together, they decided to start going to the After-School Program, part of Mary’s Center’s Teen Program that provides students with homework help, college and career resources, and workshops on healthy living.
“The After-School Program really affected my life in a good way. It opened my eyes to the real world, and how it’s going to be. You might feel defeated when you hear ‘you can’t do that, you can’t achieve that.’ But Mary’s Center helps you see that there are opportunities around the corner for you.”
Pursuing these opportunities, especially educational ones, means a lot to Kenia and her family. “My mom didn’t have the chance to even learn the alphabet, and she can’t read or write. She always pushes me to reach my potential and do something better.”
College was a priority for Kenia, but she knew the process would be full of challenges for her as a DREAMer. “At first being an immigrant really scared me. It was extremely hard knowing I wouldn’t be able to apply for certain things because I wasn’t a citizen, but Mary’s Center gave me hope.”
Through weekly virtual seminars for seniors last fall, Kenia learned all about the college application process, scholarships, financial aid, and different career opportunities.
“The Mary’s Center staff were determined to help us with anything we needed on our essays and applications, and they went out of their way to look up scholarships for us.” They also brought in guest speakers to share their experiences with the students – other immigrants with stories just like Kenia’s who had made it college and beyond.
While Kenia felt that her high school didn’t fully understand the unique setbacks she faced as an immigrant, Mary’s Center was a haven where she was truly seen.
“They will accept everybody; they’re not there to judge. If you’re an immigrant or a U.S. citizen or a refugee, they will accept you with open arms. They are there to help you regardless of your situation.”
The difficulties Kenia has encountered as an immigrant and the behavioral health services she received through the Teen Program inspired her to pursue a degree in psychology. After college, she hopes to become a therapist for teens who suffer from anxiety and depression.
In the meantime, though Kenia is out of high school, she knows she can still rely on her Teen Program family.
“You really get close with the staff at Mary’s Center. Even after you graduate, they will always have your back.”