Mexico City is where my story begins, and not simply because I was born there - the culture and values I was surrounded with are still a part of who I am today. Like several of our Upper Ninety students, my life changed in a single moment and I was not given the chance to say if it was a good or bad change. When you are young you cannot decide where or when you move because you have to go where your parents take you. I remember that I had just finished the sixth grade in Mexico and that is a big change in and of itself, going from elementary to middle school. The challenges I faced included a new school with double or triple the number of students, classes were more difficult, and I needed to make new friends. I was nervous but excited for this next step in my life when all of a sudden my mom told me that we were moving to the United States.
To put it into perspective, picture waking up in your home country where everything is familiar and safe. The following day, you find yourself in a foreign country where nothing makes sense and everything is very unfamiliar. When I arrived in Austin, Texas, I did not know anything about the United States. Not only was it my first time traveling outside of Mexico, but it was also my first time being surrounded by people who spoke a language of which I did not know a single word.
There are so many new and difficult experiences one faces when moving to a new country. On top of starting in a new school with a brand new language, you have to get revaccinated because the vaccines from your country are not accepted here (I did not like that process at all). My parents decided that I should repeat the sixth grade so that I could have time to learn English. I was a little nervous on my first day of school because it was going to be my first time interacting with kids my age in the U.S. On my first day, the principal took me to my classroom and when I walked in everyone stared at me. The teacher introduced me to the class, and I remember smiling a little when I heard them speak in Spanish. My new classmates spoke Spanish as well, which certainly helped my nerves.
That day I met a friend who taught me how to eat at the new school. I did not know that the school had a cafeteria and that you had to hurry to be one of the first ones in line. In Mexico there was no cafeteria in middle school, so you would go play games outside or buy something to eat at one of the little concessions stands. It took me a long time to adapt to this new school and its different daily practices.
My parents would pick me up after school and ask me how my day was. I would tell them that it was good, even though I always had this weird sensation of not feeling comfortable or completely happy. I was in the ESL program, but only two of the seven teachers were bilingual. To be honest, the first six months I did not understand anything at all because of the language barrier.
Nevertheless, I never had any problems passing my classes even if I was not an A student. In order to play soccer for the school, you had to pass your classes. I noticed that several of my classmates had a hard time doing well in their studies, but they would give it their best effort in order to suit up for the soccer team. They did not like doing homework or paying attention in class in the same way that I did. I was not one to be late or to skip school like many of my classmates. From not knowing a single word to having the ability to understand most conversations, my English saw great improvements. The most difficult part was that I understood much more than I was able to speak.
Another huge transition for me was entering high school. At that stage it was very similar to my middle school in that most of the students were Hispanic and I could get away with only speaking Spanish. I was in the ESL program my freshman year and at its conclusion I had to take an English test. Those results cleared me to leave the ESL program, but I did not feel confident in my English speaking abilities at all.
On the weekends, I played with my soccer team and that same year I finally made a close friend who was in the twelfth grade. We grew very close and have remained so ever since. This was important for me, because I still felt out of place in the United States and missed who I used to be back home in Mexico. In high school, I only had to speak English with the teachers and the rest of the time I communicated in Spanish.
Near the end of the 10th grade, I was getting bored with high school and I decided to talk to my school counselor. I told her that I wanted to graduate early, and she subsequently checked the classes that I had already taken and what I needed in order to graduate. She said that I could do it, and detailed the next year for me; I would be in 11th grade for the first semester and in the 12th grade during the second.
It was not until the 11th grade that I truly came to understand the meaning of my GPA and its significance when applying to a university. I was told that the university looks at the GPA, if I participated in clubs at school, if I had any community service hours, and my application essay. Luckily, I had good grades because I did not participate in anything other than my own soccer interests.
I would play soccer before my classes, at lunchtime, and after school - basically anytime I could play, I would. I even preferred not to eat lunch so I could have time to play. I decided to join the high school team, while ignoring the suggestions of others to skip class because I valued my opportunity. I had friends who smoked behind the school, but they knew that I did not smoke and so they never invited me to join.
Young people know the difference between right and wrong, they just need a reason to choose what is right for their lives. I applied to UT, Texas State, and ACC and gained acceptance to all three schools. I decided to attend UT because it was close to my home. Most of my Hispanic classmates aspired to simply finish high school, go to work, and get married, but I knew that I wanted a different future for myself. Many of my classmates never pursued education past high school. Choosing to attend a university was not only different from my friends paths, but I was also the very first in my family to go to college.
Up until the moment I started my college classes, I never had much contact with people who spoke English as their native language. At the start of my college journey, everything about the University of Texas was extremely intimidating for me. I had a hard time speaking to anyone at school except for my counselor, because she was so kind and encouraging. On the first day of class, it seemed many of the students did not know each other but quickly began to interact and make friends. For me, it was very difficult to be that open and comfortable with people who spoke so quickly and confidently in English.
My first three months at the university were so difficult that I decided to withdraw. For about two months afterwards, I felt lost and did not know what to pursue. Finally, I decided to apply to Austin Community College with the intention of taking ESL classes to hopefully improve my English and my confidence. I completed three courses in that area, but I did not feel that my passing grades equated to me becoming proficient.
In light of having no support at home or quality advice about which direction I should go with my degree, I lost two years taking a random assortment of courses. Soon I became tired and I thought seriously about quitting school. Thankfully, I talked to my ACC counselor, who advised me to pursue an Associate’s Degree in Social Work. It ultimately took me four years to complete it.
At this point in my journey, I believed I should pursue a degree in social work and use my love of soccer to help others. After returning to the University of Texas, I ended up changing my major to physical culture and sports. My return to UT initially felt similar to my first time there and I was a little afraid that I would repeat my previous experience. Many times I felt so alone because I could not understand why I struggled to make friends at a school of 50,000 students. This time around, however, I did not give up and consistently conquered the temptation when it arose. Thanks to the people who had become close to me, I did not quit.
One of my most discouraging interactions in my classes happened when I went to talk to a professor about material I was struggling to understand. She proceeded to tell me that I didn’t belong at UT and that I should be in a different school - one that had easier classes and slower-paced curriculum. She went on to say that since I was paying for UT it was ultimately my decision, but she recommended leaving. This discouraged me so much and made me think that maybe I should not be there. I am so grateful that, in the end, I decided I could do the hard work needed to graduate. You know, the funny thing is that she was at my graduation. I do not know if she remembered me, but I remembered her and her inability to see my strengths and passions.
There will always be people who try and speak negative opinions into your life, trying to place their own fears and disbelief on your hopes and dreams. Our job is to surround ourselves with those who see our abilities and strengths in spite of our weaknesses. My advice to all those who are in middle and high school who do not speak English, or do not speak it fluently, is to try with all your ability to learn. Fluency has a significant impact on your pursuit of your goals and dreams. If you take my advice, you will not have to go through the long difficult path that brought me to where I am today.
My message to Upper Ninety students is this: With the support and empowerment you have from your teammates and coaches, you can finish high school, go to college, and fulfill your dreams. Help is available, and all you have to do is ask. This country is full of opportunities, but everything depends on your dedication and pursuit of a goal. If I did it, you can as well. You are not alone. If you believe and work hard, you will experience success. Nothing in this life is easy. If it were easy, we would all do it!
My motivation comes from my family, my UT counselor Jessica, my friend Francisco, and Kaitlin Swarts for giving me the opportunity to be a part of her amazing Upper Ninety family. My parents taught me to be grateful, so I want to thank them for not giving up on me and always supporting me. One of the best aspects of college for me was being part of the University of Texas women’s soccer team. They were very kind to me, and I want to thank them for accepting me. If I did not mention anyone else who has helped me along the way, don’t feel sad. I have you in my heart, always. I am here for anyone that needs help, wants to talk, or just wants to kick the ball around. You guys have a friend in me.
I will leave you with one of my favorite quotes. “It is very true… if we choose a job that we like, we will not have to work a single day of our lives.” So follow your dreams, no matter how big they are. This is your life. Do what you love to do. Inspire someone and create happiness. Stay humble, work hard, and be kind. It’s fine to fall 1000 times, but what matters is how you get up.
Gio is a graduate of the College of Education at the University of Texas. He is currently an Assistant Coach at Upper Ninety.