By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
Out on her own, Laura says her mother would help her when she could. "My mom, she would max out her credit cards to help me. She works overnight at Walmart 9 p.m. to 7 a.m., then drops my brother at school."
Laura worked as a cashier at Fiesta and also at a flea market on the weekend. "There would be times when there was not enough for food."
Asked why it was so important that she get an education, Laura says she was doing it to be a good role model for her brother. "We came from a family we have no college graduates, and as a Mexican-American, I wanted to show my brother that anything is possible."
She also knows the struggles her mother has had, limited by the fact that she speaks Spanish and little English. "She couldn't help me with my homework."
She is determined that her father's pronouncements don't all come true.
"My father, he used to tell us that we should just stay at home and just work, just work. That college is nothing. Of course he wouldn't know, because he didn't graduate from high school.
"My father used to tell me I'd end up getting pregnant and dropping out. I dropped out, but I feel he forced me to. I don't have any kids."
Texas A&M University makes special efforts to reach students like Laura and Victor, both to help its diversity goals and because of a belief that they will do well at the school, according to Shana Castillo, A&M financial aid counselor.
Victor told her flat out that he wanted to go to Rice University (he spent part of last summer at a nanotechnology course there). Castillo told him that was fine, but still checked back with him. When it came time to go through his application documents and financial paperwork, she helped him with all of it, he says.
"She helped me out a lot, and that's why I decided to go to A&M," he says.
"They explained to me I was going to have to get outside loans, and I was like, 'I can't do that. Who is going to be my co-signer?'"
When she sat down with Castillo, Laura says, "She asked me for my father's financial info, and I started crying, because I knew my father wasn't going to give it to me."
Castillo determined that Laura met the qualifications for homelessness — "I was living on my own during what was supposed to be my senior year" — and told her not to worry.
Castillo says it was clear to her that Victor, who already relied so much on the support system at his school, would be a good fit for A&M. "I could see that was the same type of family atmosphere that we have here at Texas A&M. It would be an easier transition for him to a school like ours."
She says that Laura, who is bright and has " a similar kind of dysfunctional family situation," was also what A&M looks for. "I could tell she had that spark; she had that drive; she was not going to let her situation hold her back."
"We kind of meddle a little in our students' lives," Castillo says. "We want to make sure they're being taken care of, because some of these students that we recruit, especially from the areas in town where a lot of colleges don't recruit, they don't give them the one-on-one time that these students need."
Laura recently moved back with her mother. "My mother fought with my dad, saying if he wants me to leave, he'd better leave. So he built his own little shack at the back of the house."
She says she's still at risk because of her mom's nighttime work hours. "If my dad's upset or drunk, he could decide to throw my stuff out." She says the last time her dad got angry with her, she decided just to ride it out. "Because I'm so close to leaving."
Victor has pretty much lost touch with most of his family. His mother came by in his sophomore year and tried to take him out of the school, but the principal and the nurse stepped in and that was the end of that, Victor says. He knows that one brother is in prison for murder and the other was just released after stabbing someone.
Instead of family, he relies on his friends and his school and says he'll continue to do that at A&M, where he plans to study microbiology and maybe film. He also hopes to get back into dance (contemporary and hip-hop) some day.
Laura plans to take biomedical and biochemistry courses with the hopes of being a pediatrician someday. "I never had insurance. I want to serve underserved children."
Both she and Victor talk about building better futures for their future kids. Laura is part of the group No More Victims and speaks at seminars and colleges about her experiences.