A few weeks ago, Jennifer Esparza got her financial aid letter from Texas Christian University, her dream school.

It wasn’t enough. She had no idea how she would pay $30,000 in tuition. 

Devastated, Esparza, 18, was confused — she’s the valedictorian of her class at Marine Creek Collegiate High School. She is involved in several organizations. She thought she did everything right. She questioned whether she had done enough.

She cried and felt distraught for days. She thought she lost the chance to go to her dream school.

Esparza called the university admissions office and asked them to review it again. It helped, but what changed her life was a full-ride scholarship to TCU through the Latinas in Progress program run by the Fort Worth chapter of the Hispanic Women’s Network of Texas.

Esparza received the scholarship April 23 at the program’s graduation ceremony. Latinas in Progress is a program that helps high school Latina students learn skills such as college applications, communication, advocacy, financial literacy and mental/physical health, education chair Melissa Martinez Dominguez said.

Martinez Dominguez said the scholarships help students, but the skills they learn are just as valuable. Many of them are first-generation college students and are all assigned a mentor to help them prepare for life after high school.

The young women in the program complete a scholarship application for amounts ranging for $500 to a full ride. From there, up to four candidates are chosen for an interview for the top scholarship. 

Martinez Dominguez said the student with the most points is awarded the full-ride scholarship. Esparza stood out from the beginning, she said. 

“She was one of the girls who always asked questions and wasn’t shy about asking questions,” she said. “And you definitely saw that she was more, I guess you can say, emotionally mature than the group that she was in. And I think it’s because she had to grow up really fast.”

A daughter, sister, tia, teacher, lawyer and translator

Esparza is the fourth daughter of Mexican immigrants, whose father, Jose Esparza, 56, came to the U.S. in about 1996. Her father came before her mother, Senorina Balderas, 57, and three siblings, so he could save up money to bring them across the border and stayed with their family who had naturalized citizenship.

Esparza said her father was working hard and saving up money, but one day he left his wallet in the bathroom and lost about $2,000, which set them back. It took three more years before the rest of his family joined him in the U.S.

Senorina brought their three children with four backpacks of clothes in 1999 on a visa. They were allowed to bring only a small amount of personal items. More than 20 years later, some of the family’s belongings are still in Mexico.

Their immigration to the U.S. happened before the passage of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals act. This made it hard for Esparza’s siblings to finish school. Her sister, Monica, 35, was undocumented and did not see the point in finishing if she was not going to be able to go to college. 

Esparza tries to be an inspiration to her sister’s sons, who are not much younger than her, and encourage them to stay in school.

She has to be much more than a daughter, sister and tia. Esparza has served as a caregiver, lawyer, translator and teacher for her family. When her brother Jorge, 29, — who has a disease in his brain that is essentially a brain tumor that needs frequent surgery for removal — was fired from Wal-Mart, something did not sit right with Esparza.

She said she reviewed the reasons for his firing and found what he was accused of happened at a time when he was not clocked in, which could be proven with his time sheet. She also said the corporation showed he had signed a document agreeing to his severance, but he cannot read or write. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the family took the case to court, where Esparza presented this evidence to the judge on the phone and won.

Her family relies on her for help translating between English and Spanish, completing immigration paperwork and tutoring her nieces and nephews. She said she already sees herself in her niece Isabella, 7, who loves math and learning.

Esparza loves her family, and she doesn’t mind helping them. When her brother Jorge was severely sick in 2017, the family was scared of losing him.

Her parents’ strength inspires her, and she’s proud to be their daughter.

“I’m most proud of my mom; because even though she had three little children, she had to take my brother to get medical help. If we wouldn’t have come to the United States, he would have probably died in Mexico,” Esparza said. “And my dad didn’t really have good jobs back then, but they were able to get a one-bedroom, one-bathroom house for all of them.”

Her mom was able to improve the family financial situation, took care of her brother when he was really sick, and still keeps a positive outlook, Esparza said. She’s proud of her father, too, who works long hours and extra days in construction.

“I always tell myself when (my mom) can do it, then I can do it, too, like, I won’t let the family down,” Esparza said. 

A top student

When she started high school, Esparza was shy, anxious and kept to herself. She said she typically sat alone reading at lunch and just focused on her studies.

The collegiate high school allows students to work on earning an associate’s degree from Tarrant County College by the time they finish high school. Esparza struggled at first and wasn’t sure if she fit in.

Then, the first round of class rankings came out. Her name was near the top. That lit a fire in her to earn and keep the top spot.

And when a student who was older than her invited her to sit with them at lunch one day, Esparza started to come out of her shell a bit more. She became involved in campus activities and sat at the front of class, unafraid to ask questions to further her knowledge on a subject.

She is a founder of a campus robotics club — she loves science and technology and plans to major in computer science and engineering — and is president of the environmental research club Marine Creek Land Scholars. She’s also the president of the National Honor Society, in a book club and part of United Voices for Change.

Esparza is passionate about the work the environmental club is doing and the testing and research they do related to the lake near their campus. She also wants to see more women in fields like robotics. 

But the United Voices for Change group had a significant impact on her mental health as she battled anxiety and depression. Joining the group gave her a second family and a space to talk about mental illness outside of her family. It helped her teach her parents about focusing on mental health, which is something she said she struggled to get them to take seriously.

Looking forward

Esparza is no longer the girl who sits at lunch alone. Now, she is a leader on her campus and is ready for her next chapter.

Esparza is looking forward to joining similar organizations at TCU and finding more people passionate about science and technology. Though she knows her classes will be difficult, she is determined to do well.

“I had a dream that I wanted to go to college, I knew that I wanted to go to TCU, that I wanted to go into the STEM field,” Esparza said. “And I was like, ‘It’s here at the top and I’m seeing it, and I’ll just do whatever it takes in order to get there.’”

Esparza’s journey and maturity set her apart, Martinez Dominguez said. She supported her family but holds no resentment toward them – she just wanted to be better.

One habit Martinez Dominguez hopes to break Esparza of is apologizing for seeking help. She said a lot of young women go through this, but the Latinas in Progress program wants to encourage them to get help.

“They’re about to go through a rollercoaster of emotions in the next four years,” she said. “And it’s OK for them to ask for help. It’s OK for them to make mistakes. It’s OK for them to drop a class.”

Esparza is thankful for the program and the help and scholarship it gave her.

“I’m glad they saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself,” she said. “And hopefully one day I’m able to see that in myself, too.”

Disclaimer: Education reporter Kristen Barton is a member of the Fort Worth chapter of the Hispanic Women’s Network of Texas.

Kristen Barton is an education reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at kristen.barton@fortworthreport.org. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here. 

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Kristen BartonEducation Reporter

Kristen Barton is an education reporter for the Fort Worth Report. She has previous experience in education reporting for her hometown paper, the Longview News-Journal and her college paper, The Daily...