Program Honors HISD Students on the Road to an Ivy Education

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Felipe Guillen, a Chavez High School student, told a crowd Tuesday night about the struggles his mother and father went through. His Mexican parents had to work, so they couldn't pursue their education. They sacrificed being in their homeland while their son pursued his education. At one point, fighting back tears, Guillen said he once thought he didn't have what it took to reach college, but his friends encouraged him to join Emerge.

On Tuesday night, Carnegie Vanguard High School's gymnasium was jam-packed with students, parents and keynote speakers. HISD was honoring 64 seniors from 14 schools as part of their Emerge program awards ceremony.

Emerge helps students with college applications, SAT preparation and college tours. Through the program many students receive full-ride scholarships to the college of their choice.

Photo by Haydee Clotter
The man behind Emerge is co-founder Rick Cruz, a Yale graduate and former teacher who started the nonprofit organization in 2010 with Anna Lugo. Cruz is now the Assistant Superintendent of College Readiness for HISD and Lugo is the assistant dean of admission at Amherst College.

The goal is to help high-achieving, low-income students in the district attend and graduate from Ivy League schools and top-tier colleges. With the support of HISD Superintendent Terry B. Grier, the program has evolved and Cruz has secured funding to grow the program. The yearly ceremony that honors the students in the program began with four high school seniors telling the audience their journey of adversity. Some of their parents had them at a young age and never went to college, and others live in a bad neighborhood.

Five Emerge program mentors who had a significant role in these student's lives were on the sidelines. These were all distinguished ladies and gentleman, graduates of Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Brown and Northeastern who built bonds with the students to guide them. They paced back and forth with their eyes on all their students whom they had helped come so far. As they interacted with their students, their faces lit up.

Grier has high hopes for the program. This year there was $64 million in scholarships available for 64 students. The goal is to provide $80 million in scholarships to 20 students from each high school.

As Juliet Stipeche, HISD Board of Education president, took the stage, she said the stories were so powerful that her knees were still shaking. She offered advice to the seniors and underclassmen. Never forget where you came from. She encouraged them to "come back to your community to lead it," whether that is with volunteering or serving as a tutor.

An open-mike segment of the night's event gave anyone the opportunity to voice his or her opinions about the Emerge program. Parents and students came one after another to express gratitude for the program and what it's meant to them. Through tears, students thanked their parents for the constant support. "We did it, we're here," said one student. "We're going to good schools."

The moment was bittersweet for Guillen and he wasn't used to all the attention. Everyone wanted to speak to him, take pictures and shake his hand. Although his parents weren't able to be with him that night to celebrate, he's still happy that he'll be the first one of four siblings to attend college.

"I was just thinking how much I wish they were here and wanting to make them proud," said Guillen.

His story gave me chills because I can relate to Guillen. As the child of Honduran immigrants, I know the pressure of attending college. While a senior in high school, I just wanted to hang out with friends and party and I didn't want to worry about school. I didn't take school seriously and never had a program like this at my school to push me to succeed.

This summer I'll also be the first college graduate in my family and I understand that support from parents can make a difference. If they weren't here to push me to work hard and pursue my education, I don't know where I'd be.

"Emerge means my future," said Guillen. "Thanks to them, I was able to apply to school."

The cheers and applause were louder when Guillen was able to finish his speech; he said he would attend Stanford University. People wiped away tears; he deserved the standing ovation.

As I sat in the back, I noticed all the underclassmen wearing navy blue Emerge shirts that had a great motto. These are words to live by for these young students who come from different walks of life with the same common goals, education and success.

"Putting ideas into heads, Inspiration into hearts, and opportunities into hands."

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