|Emerson poses with Condoleezza Rice at JFK50|
The featured speaker at the event was Emerson Herrera, a SMART Scholar and junior at International high school. Emerson closed out the evening with the following speech about his life, SMART, and educational equity.
"It is an honor to be here tonight celebrating the milestones of the past and continued awakening of the future. My name is Emerson Herrera. I am 16 years old and I have a bright future because of SMART. While only 8% of low-income students graduate from college, thanks to SMART, I know I will be part of the 92% of SMART students who will benefit from an incredible college education."
"Many civil rights leaders often speak about the importance of educational equity. The right to a good education should be a given in this great country, but so often the marginalized populations are left behind. As an immigrant, first-generation college student from a low-income family, my life could easily have been drastically different. But because of programs like SMART and the undying determination and sacrifices my parents made for me, I stand before you today - a proud, college-bound student.
My parents left Guatemala in 1997 to seek a better future for our family in the United States. I was only 2 years old. My mother never went to school, and my father barely finished 1st grade due to family responsibilities. Despite their lack of education, my parents still valued education for their children. But as determined and passionate as they were, my parents could not speak, read or write in English and their own lack of experience as students prevented me from having the resources to fully understand the meaning of graduating high school and attending college. College was for the rich, and the best hope I had was to attend the under-resourced schools I was assigned to and I never knew that I had choices in my educational pursuits – until SMART.
As a student at Flynn Elementary, I loved learning and thrived in the classroom. I remember a particular sunny day when my 4th grade teacher, Ms. Obregon, told me she was very proud of my work and wanted to talk to my mother about SMART - a program that provides motivated, low-income students with amazing educational opportunities and Ms. Obregon thought I was a perfect candidate. The application process was very rigorous but rewarding. Through SMART, I was placed into a great middle school and offered rigorous after-school programming twice a week where they continuously talked about college and how I could get there. I met other motivated students from similar backgrounds to mine. We learned from each other, and grew together. SMART is like a family, and they have done so much more for me than just provide academic access and support.
My mother was diagnosed with cancer when I was in 5th grade. SMART immediately reached out to me and my family and offered to help with anything. SMART staff took me to visit schools when my mother didn’t feel up to it. My mother tried her best to be there for me and found comfort in knowing that SMART was there to assist me with anything I might need. SMART helped me escape my troubles by giving me an amazing tutor and mentor, Lauren Cleveland. During the weekdays, she would help me with homework and ask me about my day. On weekends, Lauren introduced me to different neighborhoods and places I have never been to in San Francisco. Having this partnership and friendship with an adult was very helpful especially because she went to college and had experiences that my parents were not fortunate to have.
Unfortunately in 7th grade, my mother became gravely ill and wanted to be with her family in Guatemala. My mother wanted me to stay in the United States to continue my education she desperately fought for me to have, but I felt I needed to be with my family and we decided to leave the two places I called home: SMART and San Francisco. At that time, my parents preferred not to tell us about the severity of her illness and I didn’t know that my mother’s days were numbered. It seemed so sudden when my mother passed away.
I remember it very differently now. It was actually a very bright and beautiful day. We could hear the crickets chirping and the birds singing. It had just rained the day before so the flowers and the grass were glistening with droplets of rain water. I woke up to see my mother pacing slowly since her body hurt all over. She couldn't speak very well but I heard the faint “good morning” and saw the smile she gave me. She knew she had to be strong when we were there, but I could see it in her eyes, the sadness she felt. When night came, my mother asked my father if I could take care of her for a bit while he took a break. When I grabbed her hand and she smiled at me, a flash of images passed through my eyes. I saw the happier times in her eyes, the memories of when I was a child and when she wasn't sick. But I also saw what she wanted for me, to become a well-educated professional who would not have to resort to manual labor to make ends meet, the way she and my father and their parents had to do. She saw me tearing up and she told me she loved me and I shouldn’t worry about anything because she would always be there for me.
In the middle of the night, I heard the last sigh she gave. It was so sudden and unexpected. I wish I could have had some more time with her. There is so much more I wanted to say and I wanted to believe that a miracle could still happen. But I know she was suffering and now she is at peace and I am determined to honor her memory through contributions I can make to my community and family.
During this time, SMART kept in touch with me. They would email me and ask how I was feeling. When they heard there was a possibility of me coming back to San Francisco, they ensured a place for me at SMART. While it was very hard for my father to come back after everything that had happened, he knew my mother would have wanted me to continue my education here. My father is now a single parent, trying his best to be what my mother was in addition to working full-time. It was very difficult to try to go back to the way things were, but SMART provided much needed relief for my father to ensure the best possible education for me.
SMART helped me apply to and be accepted to an amazing high school with a full-scholarship. Throughout the high school application process, they helped my father with the application and financial-aid forms, offered SSAT classes for me to take and even drove me around to take tests, visit schools and fairs. When all of my classmates were nervous that they wouldn't get into their first choice or any school at all. I was confident. I was well prepared and I had a positive attitude because SMART helped me build that self-confidence. Even today, I feel that I can never go wrong when SMART is by my side.
I am so grateful to have SMART in my life. SMART is an amazing community with a lot of caring people and I wanted to give back to a program that has done so much for me and my family. This past year, I helped incoming families interested in applying to SMART. I took notice of how stressed the parents were, and how they would do anything for their children to get a great education. Through this experience, I appreciate so much more the opportunities my parents sacrificed to get me into SMART and now I am determined, more than ever, to be an advocate and a leader for my community. All children deserve a great education. Programs like SMART should exist for all students who need it. I want to take this opportunity to ask you all tonight to help honor the memories of JFK and inspiring civil rights leaders of past and today, and work together towards a community of equity so that I am no longer an exception, but a part of a diverse and well-educated society we all deserve to be a part of.
How proud my mother would be to see me on this stage today. Thank you so much for this incredible opportunity and sharing an amazing celebration of community and progress together.