Big Dream: Migrant student rises to valedictorian of class
Jocelyn Quintero remembers long hours driving with her family back to Texas after months of factory work in Minnesota.
She remembers her parents complaining about their aching joints and about how tired they felt after working 12-hour overnight shifts for nearly three months straight.
“It really hurt me seeing them in that position where they were doing everything they can just to put food on our table for the rest of the year,” she said. “So it really just motivated me, and I remember my mom saying, ‘Go get an education, and that way you won’t be in the position that we are at where our final option is to go off to another state just to have enough money to sustain ourselves for the rest of the year.’”
Quintero was only a middle school migrant student then. This month, she will be the valedictorian of the Rivera Early College High School’s 2019 graduating class of 551 students.
She has yet to finish preparing her graduation speech for June 4, but she had a simple message Friday for migrant students and student council members at GarciaMiddle School.
“Education can be your escape route,” Quintero told a packed classroom of middle school students.
Her parents became migrant workers when she was in fifth grade, and she began travelling with them as a sixth-grader.
“It was like a 24-hour ride, and I just remember having Spanish music on during the long ride to get there,” Quintero said. “And once we did (get there), my parents would have to figure out a place for me to stay because it was something new for all of us. At the end of the day, I stayed with a family that was friends of my family.”
From July through November, her parents sought out work in factories in the north—hurling corn or tomatoes into machines depending on whether they were in Minnesota or another state—and would work 12-hour shifts overnight.
“They wouldn’t get the day shifts,” she said. “I would just spend two or three hours with my family because they still had to clean and they still had to prepare their own food and rest.”
The rest of the year, the family lived in Brownsville. As an eighth-grader beginning the school year late at Garcia Middle School, Quintero proved her determination when she successfully argued for a chance to be admitted into an algebra class, where she was months behind in the coursework and instruction.
Ana Ramirez, her eventual algebra teacher, remembers Quintero’s knock on her door.
“Are you the algebra teacher?” Ramirez said Quintero asked. The young girl wanted to enter the class in November, but Ramirez worried she was too far behind and told her it would be difficult to catch up to the class.
“So I said if you promised me you’ll be here after school every day, I can help you catch up,” the teacher said.
Quintero made that promise and managed to catch up to the class in December.
“And all her grades were 100s,” Ramirez said.
Before her family would leave for another season of hard work, she spoke with her parents about her future and the importance of her high school years.
“My parents and I had a talk, and I told them I wanted to dedicate myself to my studies,” Quintero said. “And with that, it became a great sacrifice for them, and I stayed here with my brother (who was in his 20s) starting my freshman year.”
Unlike many students who think about higher education and scholarships in their junior or senior years, Quintero knew she needed to start right away to complete classes and volunteer work that would appeal to colleges and universities.
“I knew I had to start my freshman year, and I had to have a lot of things to put on my resume so that I could stand out,” she said. “Nothing compares to the effort my parents put (forth), but I just knew I had to put in a lot of efforts to stand out in the eyes of colleges. I knew I wanted to go out of state and do the impossible.”
As a low-income student from a public school with a dream of becoming a first-generation college student, she didn’t really want to let others know that she had set her sights on StanfordUniversity. With that goal in mind, she chose advanced placement classes that would appeal to out-of-state schools rather than dual-enrollment courses that would give her college credit at several Texas schools.
Her dream almost seemed too big, she said.
“I wasn’t sure how anyone would react,” she said. “I was afraid my dream was just going to stay a dream.”
Then, she was accepted into the Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America Scholars Program, which accepts only 100 students each year across the nation. The program helped Quintero navigate the college application process.
There are 920 migrant students throughout BISD, according to Fidencio L. Zavala, BrownsvilleIndependentSchool District’s migrant counselor. For a migrant student to rise as the valedictorian of one of the district’s graduating classes is rare.
“It’s a major accomplishment,” Zavala said. “There needs to be a lot of dedication, hard work, internal drive and motivation. It’s a difficult thing. I cannot remember our last valedictorian (migrant student).”
Quintero said she was told the last migrant student to be valedictorian of RiveraHigh School earned the distinction about 25 years ago.
In December, she learned that her hard work landed her a four-year scholarship at Stanford—more than $250,000 worth of tuition and expenses. She’ll even have the option of entering a work-study program on campus.
She opened her acceptance letter in the presence of her parents, who she said were even more excited than she was—despite the prospect of their youngest child living more than 20 hours away from them.
“They were so happy I had a full ride,” she told the class of migrant students she was hoping to inspire. “And I feel that’s the most-important gift we can give our parents because now they are migrant workers, and they’re struggling with 12-hour shifts and it’s a lot of work that they do. But the one thing that I always kept with me is that I’m going to get an education so I can help them—so they don’t have to go work anymore.
“And that’s honestly the best thing you can give to your parents.”