As she begins her first semester at the University of Florida in Gainesville, Cristina Cruz is well aware she is embarking on a path her parents didn’t get a chance to follow.
Cruz, 18, is a native of Mexico City and part of the first-generation in her family to attend college. Her two older brothers, Fernando Cruz and Jose Luis Cruz, are currently attending Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers and Ave Maria University in Southwest Florida, respectively.
“My parents were unable to go to college…the lack of resources in Mexico made it very difficult for them to attend,” Cruz said. “It’s one of the main reasons we came to the United States.”
The Cruz family moved to Naples in 2008. Cristina was 9 years old and immediately felt like she was playing catch-up with her classmates.
“It was very difficult because a lot of things were different, but not knowing the language was especially hard,” she said. “I was basically having to start over.”
Cruz eventually attended Lely High School in Naples, where she became a member of the National Honor Society along with Lely’s swimming and soccer teams. She credits her parents for emphasizing the importance of academic success following her rocky scholastic start in the U.S.
“My parents were always on top of all of us when it came to going to school, making sure we were doing well, and that we had everything we needed,” Cruz said.
Once it came time to turn her attention beyond high school, Cruz relied on Champions for Learning, a Collier County-based nonprofit that seeks to boost educational attainment in the area.
“They helped me and my family and other students a lot with understanding the college process and all the terminology,” Cruz said. “They helped me apply for scholarships too.”
Champions for Learning connected Cruz with Take Stock in Children’s Collier County chapter. Students with economic need apply for Take Stock in 8th grade. Those selected meet with adult mentors on school grounds, pledge to maintain their grades, and earn a two-year tuition scholarship to a Florida state college upon their high school graduation.
In addition to her Take Stock in Children Scholarship, Cruz’s is receiving financial aid from a variety of sources as she pursues a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering at UF. That includes state (Florida Bright Futures’ Academic Scholars Award) and federal funds (a full Pell Grant) to go along with scholarships from the Community Foundation of Collier County and UF.
Cruz settled on computer engineering as a major because of what it symbolized following her arrival in the U.S.
“It all goes back to the time I lived in Mexico where we never had access to a computer,” she said. “So when I came to the U.S. and was introduced to this technology, I was amazed by all functions it had. It was this new world of opportunity.”
Between her junior and senior year of high school, Cruz completed an information technology internship at Collier County Public Schools’ communications department. Cruz plans to get a part-time job through the Federal Work-Study Program during her first year at UF.
Still, she wants to make sure to enjoy aspects of the college experience that go beyond work and study.
“I barely got out of Naples and I’ve never lived outside of my family’s house,” said Cruz, who is living on campus in her first year. “So it will be great just living in a different place. I’m looking forward to learning more about everything and getting to know more people.”
This story is part of Florida College Access Network’s “Pathway Series”, a year-long project that seeks to highlight the diversity of experiences students face as they pursue postsecondary degrees. Each student will be profiled at the start of the school year, during the fall, in the spring, and during the summer following the conclusion of their first year.