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‘Better options’ for their daughter included a move to America and an education choice scholarship

BY ROGER MOONEY

Roberto Porras was at his job as a pharmaceutical rep in his native Venezuela when his wife, Ony, called with the news that she was pregnant.

It was the spring of 2003, and Roberto, overjoyed at the thought of becoming a dad, was concerned about the baby’s future in a country rife with political unrest.

“I started thinking what I can offer to my child, better options,” Roberto said. “At that moment I decided I had to move from there.”

So, he and Ony left their home in Maracaibo and followed family members who had immigrated to Miami.

Diana with all the honors she earned during her four years at Pace High.

On Dec. 24 of that year, Ony gave birth to a girl they named Diana. On May 26 of this year, Diana graduated near the top of her class from Monsignor Edward Pace High School in Miami, having compiled a 5.29 weighted GPA and 33 dual enrollment credits to college.

Diana, 18, will attend Florida International University (FIU), where she plans to double major in computer science and Spanish. Having earned an Ambassador Scholarship from FIU and a Florida Medallion Scholarship plus a Federal Pell Grant, Diana’s college tuition is fully covered.

“We are blessed with her,” Roberto said. “She is very smart.”

The “better options” Roberto hoped to offer his daughter came to fruition in their new home with the help of an education choice scholarship.

Diana received a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship to attend Catholic school from kindergarten through 12th grade. The same with her sister, Mariana, who will be an eighth-grader during the 2022-23 school year at Our Lady of the Lakes Catholic School in Miami Lakes.

The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship is funded by corporate donations to Step Up For Students.

“Without Step Up, I wouldn’t be here today with all these accolades,” Diana said. “Without Step Up, I wouldn’t have realized what a privilege it is to be in the position that I am, receiving all these opportunities. I have to take advantage of them.

“It’s a privilege to be educated. There are so many people who can’t or don’t want to.”

To say Diana loves to learn is an understatement.

She loves taking notes in class, studying, and getting perfect scores on tests and assignments.

“It’s about focusing on school and not having a life, I guess,” she joked before adding, “Applying the stuff I learn to the real world is the most fun part of it for me.”

During her senior year at Pace, Diana took advance placement (AP) classes in government, literature, computer science and calculus, plus a physics honors course.

She took the AP Spanish exam in May without taking AP Spanish. Diana spent the two days prior to the test studying Spanish literature, then aced the exam.

“She’s that kind of student,” said Hedda Falcon, who teaches computer science and technology at Pace. “She’s so bright. She can do anything.”

For Shadow Day during her senior year, when students follow a teacher around to see what the job entails, Diana chose to shadow Falcon. They each wore the same dress, the same shoes and the same nail polish. It was Diana’s way of paying tribute to the teacher who had the most impact on her education.

“I don’t even know how to say it,” Falcon said. “It was an honor.”

Diana was involved in 10 clubs during her four years at Pace, including STEM Academy, Women in STEM Club, engineering and computer technology. She was also a member of the Spartan Ambassador Society. She was president of several of those clubs. Those roles, Diana said, helped her build leadership skills. It also helped her develop what she called her “public voice.”

“How to talk to classmates. How to talk to teachers,” she said.

Diana took a class in Microsoft as a freshman. Students are required to receive certification in Word, Excel and PowerPoint to pass. Diana went two steps further and received certification in Outlook and Word Expert Level.

It was during a robotics class as a sophomore when Diana realized she loved computers. She helped build a robot that could throw a ball, move around a room and play music, including “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” The computer is named “Bubbles,” and they call the remote used to control it the “Soap Bar.”

“That’s when I realized I just don’t like computers,” she said, “I also want to learn how they are made.”

Diana and her father, Roberto, during Step Up For Students’ Rising Stars Awards event at Monsignor Pace High. Diana received an award for being a Super Senior.

Diana was the valedictorian of her eighth-grade class at Mother of Our Redeemer Catholic School in Miami. As part of her graduation speech, she reflected on how far she came during her nine years at the school. She remembered not being able to speak English when she entered kindergarten and how she could at the end of that school year.

By the eighth grade she knew why her parents moved to the United States.

“I’m very grateful for everything they have done,” she said. “They did not have to go through that, but they did for me and my sister and our futures.”

Once in Miami, Roberto entered nursing school, juggling a full-time job and his family with his studies. He is now a nurse at Memorial Regional Hospital in Hollywood.

Earning top grades was Diana’s way of saying, “Thank you” for the opportunity of an education.

“That’s a maturity level you don’t see a lot of in high school,” Falcon said. “She appreciates what her parents have done for her.”

Roger Mooney, communications, manager, can be reached at rmooney@SUFS.org.

Scholarship student soars after hurdling language barrier

By JEFF BARLIS

The day after Maria Corrales’ tear-soaked graduation ceremony from St. Brendan High School, her mother, Carmen Urquijo, still searched for perspective.

“I have no words,” said Urquijo of her oldest daughter’s path from Cuba to Miami, a four-year journey that saw a girl who didn’t speak any English transform into a college-bound honors student.

A moment later the words spilled forth.

“Proud, grateful, full of joy that she was able to achieve so much,” Carmen said in Spanish. As Maria translated, a slight blush came over her golden skin.

A scholarship helped Maria Corrales soar academically and overcome a language barrier after leaving Cuba, leading to graduation.

A scholarship helped Maria Corrales soar academically and overcome a language barrier after leaving Cuba, leading to graduation.

Maria’s journey is a testament to perseverance and opportunity. St. Brendan became a second home, a refuge and a springboard to the American dream. But Maria’s family wouldn’t have been able to afford tuition had it not been for the Step Up For Students scholarship that helps lower-income families.

The journey began in the hilly town of Santa Clara, Cuba. Maria was one of the top students in her middle school, but knew from her parents that studies were no guarantee of success in Cuba. Her mom was a doctor, but the profession paid very little. Her father, Fabio Corrales, studied to be an electrician but ended up a businessman who worked with artisans.

The family was comfortable, but a future in Florida looked far brighter.

Maria, then 15, said it was difficult leaving friends, relatives, the family home and her boyfriend. But once she and her sister, Mariangel, then 11, got settled into school, they realized English and assimilating were ever harder. There were a lot of tears.

“I thought I was coming to Disney,” Maria said. “But it was tough.”

While Mariangel went to the neighborhood middle school, the family’s Catholic faith led Maria to St. Brendan (Mariangel now attends St. Brendan and is happy and thriving). Even with the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship through Step Up, and financial aid from the school, money was tight. Carmen and Fabio had to make do with low-paying jobs and couldn’t afford a car.

The city bus Maria took every morning was cold and depressing. No one talked. Everyone looked tired. She was typically among the first to arrive to a quiet, lonely campus.

“Mornings were very hard,” she said, “because I knew I had a whole day of not understanding anything. I had to pay attention because I had to get something out of the class. It felt like I wasn’t in the right place.”

Normally a chatterbox, Maria hardly spoke her freshman year. She was embarrassed. She doubted herself and the decision to move. The girl who got all A’s in Cuba received a D in English in the first quarter.

But she had an angel at St. Brendan.

Tayra Ichino ran the English lab after school three days a week. Maria attended every one, feeling relief as she entered the room. There, Ms. Ichino would translate, explain assignments, and absorb any doubts and fears with relentless encouragement.

Tayra Ichino celebrates the graduation of her student, Maria Corrales.

Maria was such a positive, hard-working student, Ichino said, it felt good to help her. By third quarter of freshman year, she was making all A’s. By year’s end, she was accepted into the school’s STEM academy.

“That shows how much studying and reviewing she was doing, because it’s not just sitting with me,” Ichino said. “She had to go home and study twice as hard as any student who already had the language.”

That summer, Maria’s progress with English accelerated even more. She spent seven weeks as a camp counselor for 8-year-old girls where there was no getting around the language barrier. The girls bluntly asked her why she spoke so strangely. The ones who spoke Spanish helped her.

“It helped me come out of my shell,” Maria said. “After camp, I said, ‘OK, I can speak.’ ”

The embarrassment gone, Maria set about conquering St. Brendan. The student body seemed larger as she made more English-speaking friends. She took harder classes and thrived.

“She just completely turned it on,” said guidance counselor Carlos Nuñez.

Now a graduate, Maria’s accomplishments are staggering: English Honor Society (“which is amazing,” Nuñez said, “because she couldn’t even put a sentence together when she first started”), National Honor Society, Math Honor Society, Science Honor Society, Social Sciences Honor Society, Spanish Honor Society, varsity swimming, president of the STEM Academy, and unanimous winner of the Archbishop’s Catholic Leadership award.

“This girl is remarkable,” said St. Brendan principal Jose Rodelgo-Bueno. “We were worried when we gave her admission, but she has better grades than people who were born here.”

Maria was accepted into the honors program at Florida International University, where she will study civil engineering. She wants to own a firm someday and build bridges, buildings and expressways.

“The sky’s the limit and I can accomplish anything,” she said. “I learned that at St. Brendan.”

About Saint Brendan High School

Originally a seminary high school in 1959, St. Brendan went co-ed after an enrollment decline and re-opened with its present name in 1975. Today’s student body is about 70 percent female and 98 percent Hispanic. Part of the Archdiocese of Miami, the school sits on 33 acres that are shared with the seminary. There are 1,187 9-12th graders, including 284 on Step Up scholarships. The school has an academies program similar to college majors, in which freshmen apply to one of four academies – law/business, medical, engineering, and fine arts. More than half of the teachers hold advanced degrees. The school administers the SAT and ACT annually. Tuition is $10,250 a year with financial aid available to qualified families.

Jeff Barlis can be reached at jbarlis@sufs.org.