Wednesday, 15 July 2009 20:00

A door opens and the light shines for Irene

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Irene has been in this country for only four years. When she came, she could not speak a word of English. The smugglers became frustrated with her because she kept mispronouncing the one word she had to get right in order to make it across — “American.” When the time finally came, she got it right, and her family was reunited at last, after four long years. Her mother had come previously, and was working as a cook in a local Mexican restaurant. She had hoped to get established and have her family join her. Finally, they did.

Due to Irene’s outstanding performance as a student in Mexico, she could have entered high school here as a sophomore. But she chose to go back a year because she wanted to make sure she learned everything she needed to learn before graduating high school. She didn’t want any short cuts. In four years, she has not only learned the language as well or better than most native speakers, she has excelled in all subject areas and graduated near the top of her class this spring.

She had high hopes of being accepted at Berea College, which had been one of few pathways in higher education available to young undocumented students like Irene, students who have earned a chance by virtue of their performance, but who find most doors closed because they lack a Social Security number. The news that came last winter from Berea was more bitter than the weather. Despite her excellent achievements as a student, she had not been accepted.

Then came her hour of darkness. Make that several weeks of darkness.

“I have always been a person who has a lot of hope and faith,” she said. “But when I got the news from Berea, I lost hope for awhile. It was just gone and I didn’t know what to do.”

Irene is one of those rare people who have a passion for both math and art, which is part of the reason she wants to become an architect, so she can combine these passions in her work. But that day, all she could do was take down the beautiful pictures and photographs she had put up on her wall for inspiration. Suddenly, they were too hard to look at.

Even worse, she had no idea what to say to her younger brothers, Angel and Daniel, who relied on her not only as a role model, but as the source of their own hope — if Irene could make it, maybe THEY could too.

“Our family dinners have always been so noisy,” she said. “My brothers are always talking about what they are going to be. One wants to be a doctor. The youngest wants to become a marine biologist. But after we got the news I wasn’t going to be going to Berea, it just got very quiet at dinner. For like two weeks, nobody said anything. We just ate in silence.”

It was then that I noticed Irene’s voice trembling. She tried hard to fight back the tears.

“The most important thing to me is that my brothers not lose hope,” she said. “I could see that what was happening to me was affecting them, too.”

Slowly, Irene got back on her feet. She focused on her studies, on regaining her lost hope somehow. And then, months later, came a letter from Meredith College. She had been accepted. She was in. Her response was not what you might expect.

“I couldn’t really feel happiness,” she said. “I knew if I didn’t get a scholarship, there was no way I could go.”

Indeed, it was going to cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $30,000 for Irene to attend Meredith. They might as well have sent her an invitation to the moon, as long as she could provide her own transportation.

A few weeks later, the transportation arrived as well, in the form of a major scholarship. It didn’t cover everything, but between that, a local scholarship, several private donations, and what she and her family could scrimp together, she will be able to go. In about a month, Irene will be just another freshman at Meredith College, the largest women’s college in the entire Southeast.

The question now is, what about next semester? And the one after that? Irene is an excellent student, but even she cannot complete a degree in one semester. The scholarships will cover most of her expenses — and there will be other scholarships, once she proves that she can excel on that level just as she has proved herself on every other level before — but what about the rest? She is willing to work, of course, to subsidize her own education. The irony is that it will not be easy finding a job because she is undocumented. Still, she expects she will find a way to find some work that will help her get by.

The last time I wrote about Irene, I received several supportive letters, including a few offers of monetary support. If there are people out there who do want to help, please email me and I will direct you to the proper funding source. Believe me, any donations that are given in support of this student are going to be paid back to the world, with incalculable interest.

Irene is finally excited about her future again — “I guess I know what happiness feels like now,” she said — but she is even more grateful for the change she has seen in her brothers.

“It is real for them now,” she said. “It has been noisy again at dinnertime.”

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