Academic Achievement As A Way Out

Dedication: I’d like to dedicate this story to my 12-year-old self, for being so courageous and so devoted despite so many hardships. I’m happy with the way that things turned out. I’ve been able to live my life exactly the way that I’ve wanted to live it, and it all started with that kid making the most of what little she had.

When I was 12 years old we (my mother and my three siblings) moved from Colombia to the US to live with my dad, who had migrated 7 years earlier. We arrived to discover that he’d become an alcoholic and was barely making enough money in his factory job to pay the bills and maintain his drinking habit. We didn’t speak English, we were unfamiliar with the culture and knew very few people in our new country. Things at home were always tense with my dad’s drinking, violent mood swings and constant money worries.

I felt powerless and always afraid at home, and at school I felt like a stranger. I found no place of respite for me in those days. There was little that I could do to change the situation at home, but I came to realize that the one place where I could change my situation was at school. So I decided to learn English as quickly as possible. I got myself an English-Spanish dictionary and carried it with me everywhere I went. When homework assignments were given, I took them home, translated them into Spanish, did the work in Spanish and then translated it back to English. I wish I’d kept some of these early assignments because I can imagine now how rough the translations must have been, and how the teachers probably got a good laugh reading these assignments!

It was a lot of work, like doing twice the homework every day. But slowly, there was less and less need to translate the work, until there came a time when I was keeping up with the classes and with the assignments. My verbal skills were still rough, but at least I was able to manage in class. It came as a total surprise when, at the end of the year, Mr. Edson, our homeroom teacher brought out a trophy and presented it to me for “Most Improvement.”

A year later I went to high school and I faced a new set of challenges as the work became more complex. But I devoted myself to school in the same way that I’d devoted myself to learning English because now I had my sights set on going to college. I didn’t know how I was going to manage because, by then, my parents had separated, and we were living with even more limited means.

There was a secretarial school in my neighborhood and they offered evening classes and financial loans. After making some inquiries I enrolled with the idea that a secretarial diploma could get me a job to pay for college. By my senior year in high school I had my secretarial diploma and I was now teaching a computer class at the secretarial school. My days began at 7am and ended at 11pm.

When my high school announced the student rankings for the graduating class, I was told that I was #7 in a class of over 400 seniors. I was so busy trying to keep up that I had no idea I had actually surpassed most of my class in academic performance.

Those good grades secured me admission at the state university, and a series of student loans and grants permitted me to pay for some of the tuition. With my secretarial diploma I was able to get work and pay for the rest of my expenses. Four years later (and ten years after I arrived in the US) I had a Bachelor’s degree and I’d fulfilled my mission.

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Jamila Hammad