Above, Rachel Ochoa plans to major in international relations at Stanford University, with a long-range goal of becoming an international lawyer.
Having abandoned their own higher-ed dreams when they emigrated from Mexico as teens, Rachel Ochoa’s parents long drilled in her the importance of going to college.
She took their advice to heart, studying hard, participating in school activities and enrolling in every Advanced Placement course offered at Cesar Chavez Social Justice Humanitas Academy. She racked up college credits, with her sights set on attending nearby Cal State Northridge.
“My dad is a blue-collar worker, so he always told me that if he went to college, I wouldn’t have to physically exhaust myself (in a job),” she said.
Thanks to her hard work, and the support of teachers and counselors at her school, Rachel has a brighter future than either she or her parents could ever imagine. With a full-ride scholarship from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, she is headed this fall to world-renowned Stanford University. She plans to major in international relations, with a long-range goal of becoming an international lawyer.
“I never thought I could go a school like Stanford or Princeton, but my advisers told me to aim high,” Rachel said. “I did, and look what happened!”
One of four schools on the Cesar Chavez Learning Academies campus, the Social Justice Academy has built a strong college-going culture. College pennants adorn the administrative office, and portraits of graduating seniors – and the schools where they’re headed – line the walls.
The Chavez Academies are also among seven L.A. Unified schools that have partnerships with Project Grad. The nonprofit provides academic and social-emotional supports for students, and helps them and their families navigate the college-application process. It was through Project Grad that Rachel learned of the new Gates Scholarship that covers virtually all college expenses, including tuition, housing, books and fees. It was awarded to just 300 high school seniors nationwide who are of Hispanic heritage, from low-income backgrounds and who have demonstrated strong leadership skills.
Assistant Principal Jeff Austin said Rachel was a natural to receive the scholarship.
“Rachel has been just an awesome student and role model at our school,” he said.
Although she is looking forward to her college experience, Rachel also worries about culture shock and how she will fit in with students with more worldly experiences than hers. She has been reading classic literature and watching documentaries, but ultimately knows that her strongest assets are her own background and resilience.
“I’m just realizing that I’m not where I am instead of my obstacles, but become of them,” she said. “I have to remember where I’m from.”
Rachel will be the first in her family to attend college, although her mom had long ago aspired to be an accountant. She stood next to Rachel as her daughter opened the email and learned she had been accepted to Stanford.
“We just screamed and cried,” Rachel said. “And then we called my dad at work … and he cried, too. After all their sacrifices, I just want to make them proud.”