Mary Espinosa is a first year student at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte (UNCC). She is an alumnus of Citizen Schools North Carolina. In middle school I didn’t quite realize the situation my peers and I were in. We were first generation Americans in a low-income community. I always knew that some families weren’t from the United States, but at that age I didn’t realize the importance of it.
I was born in California to Mexican parents. We moved to Charlotte, North Carolina in sixth grade where I attended Eastway Middle School. Eastway had a program in the afternoon called Citizen Schools. A lot of my friends were in the program and having fun so I decided to join in seventh grade.
I loved Citizen Schools! I really liked the apprenticeships. They gave me the opportunity to branch out and try new things that I wouldn’t normally try. I’m not very artistic, but the art apprenticeship was my favorite. We painted a huge mural in the school cafeteria which is still there today.
The most meaningful part of Citizen Schools that really changed my life came in eighth grade. In 8th Grade Academy (8GA) we went on college tours all around the state. It was a really valuable experience at such a young age. Learning about college in middle school gave me an idea of what to expect. Going to real colleges motivated me to stay in school and work toward becoming the first person in my family to go to college.
A little over two years ago I co-founded a local youth group and it hit me. The kids we worked with couldn’t afford to go college and didn’t think they could attend. Just like some of the kids at Eastway.
I was one of the lucky ones. After Citizen Schools I definitely felt like I could go to college. Giving us that mentality was very empowering. I saw the same thing with the youth I worked with. These kids don’t hear that very often. I’m personally glad that I heard it because when I was younger I remember thinking that I couldn’t go to college because it was too expensive. Citizen Schools really helped me reconsider that thought and made me believe that I could.
Now I’m a freshman at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. I am the first person in my family to go to college. My parents are from Mexico and they moved to the United States before I was born. It was a huge deal to them and they’re really proud of me. I have three younger sisters and now I am setting the right example for them.
I am majoring in social work and considering going to law school. I want to help kids who come from immigrant parents have access to college. I do a lot of community work and a lot of organizing around immigrants. I think that if I go into law, I will have a chance to more directly impact the lives of these young people by helping them get into college so that they can work and contribute to the economy and the country.
My message to Citizen Schools students everywhere is to take advantage of the program. Every time you visit a college campus you have to think, “I can be here in a couple of years.” Pay attention, work hard and keep your eyes on the prize. You have to fight the odds. It’s about moving forward and being able to educate yourself. Prove everyone wrong who said, “You can’t do it,” because you can.