|Liliana and Nonoko Sato at SMART Goes to College 2013|
Good evening! My name is Liliana Santos and some of you may remember me from the speech I gave 2 years ago at Town School for SMART goes to College. Being here tonight, I am overwhelmed with a mixed sense of peace, joy, and bittersweet happiness. I remember stepping onto Burke’s campus for the very first time as a graduating 5th grader. I had just been accepted into the SMART program, and I wasn't quite sure what was happening but I remember I was very excited and also a bit nervous. Standing here before you, I feel pretty much the same. But a couple of things have changed. I am now a senior at Lick-Wilmerding High school and I will be graduating in exactly 31 days. Speaking to you today for a program that I love and that has changed my life, at a school that helped me grow and nurtured me, I feel that I have come full-circle and I am so grateful for this opportunity.
To start things off, I’d like to make a confession. Ever since I was in 6th grade I wanted to attend Yale University. A pretty big dream for a sixth grader, but the origin might surprise you. As a middle schooler, I came across the Gossip Girl books. For those of you that haven’t read these books yet, they center around an elite group of students in high school from the Upper East Side. And, one of the main characters, Blair, who was my favorite character, really really wanted to go to Yale. Now, at that time, I had no clue what Upper East Side was or what an Ivy League school was. All I knew was that Blair wanted to go to Yale and I thought to myself– Well, if Blair can do it, I can too. “Going to Yale” became a metaphor for what I could achieve if I worked hard and believed in myself.
This past year as I applied to colleges, I realized just how competitive the process would be. As my mailbox began overflowing with college pamphlets I became more and more intimidated by the whole ordeal. Most of my classmates at Lick lead privileged lives and were expected to attend college their whole lives and fully supported through the application process. I on the other hand would be the first in my family to go through this process. Often, I felt very insecure about my qualifications and my own background. I was born in San Salvador, El Salvador and moved to the United States at a young age. When I was three years old, on April 15th 1998, my father was shot five times outside of our apartment building. My mother was left with two girls to raise on her own with the help of my grandmother and auntie. My uncle who is currently living with us, developed an addiction to alcohol and became more dependent on our family. In El Salvador, my greatest achievement would've been to not get pregnant during high school or to be a good wife. I would not have been encouraged to excel in school. Most of my family never reached past high school. And, no one has graduated from college!
But, despite these hardships and obstacles, I was able to persevere. SMART recognized me and saw my potential. As immigrants with low-income means, my family would not have been able to afford, much less become aware of a school like Burke’s without SMART’s help. At Burke’s I was offered art, music and theater classes, multiple sports teams (many of which I was not so good at), and teachers who had the time and desire to work with me personally. Burke’s literally helped me come out of my shell and showed me how much I loved learning. Following on to Lick has been equally rewarding. In fact, their motto – head, heart and hands – has shaped my perspective as a global citizen, which in turn has shaped what I want to do with my life and how I want to do it; engaging in my community and helping those around me.
Contrastingly, my public elementary school didn't offer any art classes. At church, many of the students my age who live in the Mission District are currently signing up for the Army or City College. Many have had to take night classes to earn enough credits to graduate, and many are unsure about what comes after high school. Unlike me, they were not provided with the opportunity to attend private schools or choose a school that fit them like a glove where they could have teachers who encouraged and strengthened them.
SMART goes beyond private schooling. When I was creating my college list, my college counselor recommended a lot of great colleges but Yale was not on that list. NONE of my top choices were on the list which was understandable seeing as my dream schools were highly selective and I was competing with my peers at Lick and elsewhere who had access to and could afford extra prep courses, extra tutoring, and private college counselors - whereas my family could barely afford to buy an SAT prep book. But, SMART came to my rescue with its College Access Program. During the summer they helped me with an essay writing bootcamp, SAT prep courses (with a book!), practice tests, and even tutors. And, let’s not forget SMART’s signature and never-ending stream of personal cheerleading. Without this extra support from SMART, I would not have been so confident in adding my top choice colleges to the list of schools I would apply to.
Last month, after I received my college decisions, I called Nonoko to tell her I had some very “bad news.” (emphasize the quotes) I asked her to sit down and take a deep breathe, I could hear her anticipating the worst. I told her: “I am very sad to tell you…that I was accepted to UC Santa Barbara, Lewis & Clark, UC San Diego, CSU Monterey Bay/Sacramento/Long Beach and Humboldt State. AND, I received a full ride to Stanford, Columbia, Amherst, Brown…oh, and Yale.”
It took her awhile for the news to sink in. Her response reflected my initial reaction to the incredible news. She was proud of my achievements and excited about all my incredible options!
From the beginning, SMART was the one to see the potential in me. I am thrilled to report that I will be joining the Class of 2017 at Yale University next year. My childhood dream and hope has become reality! I am especially excited by the opportunity to study abroad, to study alongside current and future leaders, and to become a leader myself. I thank God for the blessing of having SMART in my life. SMART has helped me learn to be thankful for all my blessings and, above all, to never give up! I will take these lessons with me as I embark on the next chapter of my life at Yale.
So to SMART and all its donors sitting here tonight, I am eternally grateful to you! On behalf of all the future SMART students, I sincerely hope you will continue your support of this amazing program so that they too will have the same incredible opportunities I have had. Perhaps in a few years from now, I will be standing before you once again – next time in Louboutin heels– introducing the program for the evening and recounting the continued successes your support helped me to achieve.
Thank you all and thank you SMART.