These days, getting into college is no cake walk. The competition is fierce and the application process is long. All of these obstacles are harder when your family cannot guide you through the process, as was the case with Clarissa Garza. “She’s the first one in our family to go to college,” says Clara Garza, her mother. “We support her in everything she does, so she has everything she needs to get ahead.” As she speaks, Clara’s voice swells with pride. She cannot contain her emotion at the thought of her daughter’s accomplishments; though she’s not yet twenty years old, Clarissa is already checking off milestones like an old pro.
From an early age, Clarissa knew she would attend college. She compared the stable lifestyles she observed of her college-educated teachers, school counselors, and principals to the daily toil of her parents – her father ranching in Mexico and her mother caring for seven children. She understood how few other options they had without degrees. Clarissa watched as her older siblings followed in their father’s footsteps, also limiting their career choices by not finishing school. Perhaps most importantly, she saw her mother’s hopes for all her children to have more out of life dashed. Clarissa wanted to ensure her mother would cry only tears of happiness and pride for her, not of frustration. She wanted a life filled with options for her future, so she made a decision: “I was going to go to college no matter what.”
The fact that she was a first-generation student did not deter Clarissa. One of her first steps was making a list of potential colleges. After weeks of thorough research, one school rose to the top: South Texas College. “STC was perfect,” recalls Clarissa. “It was affordable – much more than other South Texas schools I looked at. And, they had a great program for education, which is what I wanted to study.” She says that in the end, it was a no-brainer to apply there first, and applying was not as hard as she thought it would be. “I just worked on every form and checklist and essay until I was totally finished,” she says.
Clarissa was not only accepted into STC, she also landed a competitive work-study job in the financial aid office. Upon hearing the news, Clarissa’s mom was proud of course, but not surprised. “She’s always wanted to be someone in life who can do something for others,” Clara says. Clarissa herself says finding that job on campus was a Godsend. “I think of it as a gift from God because without it, I might not have been able to attend,” she remembers. “It was close to home, so I could live there and help my mom out.”
The financial aid office, where she helped fellow students with financial aid forms and deadlines, was also where Clarissa’s career dreams gelled. “I loved the feeling of making it easier for people to get their education,” Clarissa says. She had a knack for it, too: when a scheduling crunch this winter left Clarissa to man the office alone, she rose to the occasion. “I ran the office, and everything went fine. I was nervous at first but then I remembered that I knew how to do my job,” she grins.
These days, Clarissa is looking at yet another next step: finishing her bachelor’s degree so she can become a classroom teacher. “I earned my teacher’s aid certificate from STC already,” she says, “so I can get experience teaching – and earn money – while I’m getting my bachelor’s.”
In three to four years, Clarissa Garza will be teaching in her very own classroom. Then, she wants to be a high school counselor, working to help students develop plans of their own.
Knowing Clarissa, there is little doubt that she will reach all her goals. She is the kind of person who always knows her next step, a trait she says led her to become the first in her family to attend college and keeps her thriving in her second year at STC. “She’s always been very dedicated,” Clara agrees. She has witnessed her daughter’s academic success from elementary school to college, the result of always trying to make her mother proud. But no matter what, Clarissa knows she can count on her mother’s love and support. “For me,” says Clara, “she will always be my little girl.”