by Theo Lebryk

In the coming months, Steven Callejas, Ermias Kebede, Fabio Vera Crespo and Linda Vu will matriculate to four of the most elite universities in the country. Besides the prestige of the universities they will soon share, all four share a common attribute: they are among the first generation in their family to attend any level of American higher education. Here are their stories:

Ermias Kebede lived in Ethiopia until 4th grade when he moved to Arlington, VA. Life in America was different financially for the Kebede family.

“Especially early on I was kind of oblivious to the reality of things. I was positive we were kind of well off. My parents made sure educational needs and everything were accommodated for,” Kebede said.

His parents, though, were working hard to provide for Kebede and his two sisters.

“I didn’t know how much my dad was working. There was a point where he was working three part time jobs, where he comes late at night and leaves before we even leave.

“Due to that, he didn’t pay too much attention to his health so when his stomach hurt or things like that he thought it was something simple but it turned out to be cancer.”

During Kebede’s 8th and 9th grade years, his father tried to work around the chemotherapy while his mother increased her responsibilities to put food on the table. Though the cancer got better, his father ultimately passed away after a complication with one of the surgeries.

With his two sisters now in college, Kebede moved to affordable housing with his mother and enrolled at Stuart as a sophomore.

Once here, Kebede decided to challenge himself to get out of his comfort zone. Kebede joined the cross country team after a gym classmate prompted him to do so.

“I wasn’t planning on running at Stuart but looking back I’m truly glad I did it because it made it easier to get comfortable with the school,” Kebede said.

Since, Kebede has become the fastest runner at Stuart. He has won MVP awards in cross country, indoor track, and outdoor track and qualified for states in indoor and outdoor track.

“Cross Country also gave me an opportunity to meet people involved in the IB diploma program which in turn led me to pursue the diploma.”

Kebede is a full IB diploma candidate while juggling his leadership responsibilities for Key Club and National Honor Society. Last summer, he took part in the LEDA Scholars Program where he was convinced to apply to some of the top schools in the country.

Kebede’s hard work paid off this year when he was accepted into 11 colleges including Williams and Amherst Colleges. After visiting both, Kebede chose Amherst where he will be a preferred walk-on. His work still isn’t done yet.

“I truly orient myself to make sure that by the time I get out of college I provide some insurance to my mom at least, like I’ll  be fine and that she can worry about herself and taking care of her health,” said Kebede. He hopes that once he’s done his mother can go back to Ethiopia to visit the family she left behind. “I want her to be able to not worry about us and be able to focus on her own things, kind of like be relieved of her duties. This American dream made them take a lot of sacrifices.”

When he was a toddler, Fabio Vera Crespo moved from Cochabamba, Bolivia, to the US. Vera Crespo bounced around homes, living in apartments and renting out parts of other people’s houses. When he was in 2nd grade, his father moved back to Bolivia, leaving Fabio, his mother Lilian Crespo and his younger sister Valeria.

“I don’t remember there being much of a change from when my dad left to when my dad was here, Maybe it’s because it was a while ago,” Vera Crespo said. “I didn’t really see it as a challenge, it’s my life.”

In school, Vera Crespo emerged as one of the top students in his class. Vera Crespo is a high powered math student at Stuart. He took Multivariable Calculus and Linear Algebra this year after finishing IB HL II his junior year. He is also a IB Bilingual Diploma Candidate.

“Over the years I’ve been setting a standard for myself like I have to do well for myself. Part of it was a pride thing. I just want to do well in school and I guess my mom caught wind of that and now she expects that consistency,” Vera Crespo said.

Vera Crespo’s junior year, he decided to go to Career office to visit Career Specialist Carol Kelley. It was there that he became involved with the Questbridge program.
In September, Fabio found out he was a finalist for the scholarship. Two months later, he learned that he’d been granted a full-ride to the Tufts University School of Engineering.

“I know can never ask for help for homework, because my mom is busy; I started to get into math and stuff she didn’t know,” Vera Crespo said.

“I think it’s weird being a first generation student, when you have parents that don’t know much about the college process or what you should be doing in high school,” Vera Crespo said.     Looking back, Vera Crespo wishes he had gotten more involved in extracurricular activities or been more mindful of fixing an A- to an A.

“I could have done a lot more things if I’d had the guidance, but I didn’t… but that’s ok. It’s just a weird thing maybe we could improve on in the future.”

Linda Vu is daughter of Vietnamese refugees. Her mother didn’t speak English until recently when she started taking classes while her dad still struggles with limited English proficiency. Both currently work for FCPS: her father as a janitor and her mother as a lunch lady. Vu and her family have spent most of their time in government assisted housing.

Like Vera Crespo, Vu was also a Questbridge finalist, but ended up applying to Swarthmore College regular decision. It is there that she plans to study Astronomy, biology or Astrobiology.

“It’s a relief [getting into college]. When I was growing my mom said you have to go to college, it’s not a question whether you want to or not, it’s a question of survival. You can’t get anywhere in life with a minimum wage job,” Vu said.

Like 66 percent of Stuart seniors, neither of Vu’s parents attended college in the US. Thus, Vu needed help navigating the college admission process. She credits Ann Gordon, whom Kelley assigned to her as part of the College Mentor Program, with keeping her organized.

“The only reason why I survived my college application process was thanks to my mentor [Ann Gordon],” Vu said. Vera Crespo and Callejas also received mentors through the program.

“From the outset, I was very impressed with Linda’s qualifications and her motivation and drive,” Gordon said. “Linda is an ambitious, motivated and focused young woman and I look forward to hearing of her future successes.”

Vu is going to Swarthmore on a full ride; Vu has work study of less than $2,000 and has zero expected family contribution.

“It has all the qualifications I want from a school. It’s a really small school; it’s under 2,000; it’s close by-I can reach there in under 2 hours of driving; [and] the community is mostly, from what I hear, collaborative and friendly and it’s a liberal arts school,” Vu said.

Steven Callejas, his mother, father, sister and brother cram into one bedroom so that his aunt and uncle can rent out the other bedroom.

His parents work long hours as a construction worker and cleaning lady. Watching their struggle, Callejas wanted to do something to change that and to become someone who doesn’t throw away his education.

However, Callejas hasn’t been able to turn to his family for much help with his work since elementary school: his parents left El Salvador before they finished high school. Neither speaks much English.

“Because of them, and my neighbors around me who are also kind of immigrants who didn’t go to high school in their countries, I saw the value in education,” said Callejas. “So I  pursued education and decided I wanted to go to college and get a career I enjoyed.”

Callejas was a Questbridge finalist as well but didn’t get matched with a college. However, after Northwestern read his application, they reviewed his application again for as part of their normal early decision process. In December, Northwestern informed him that he’d been accepted into their McCormick School of Engineering with financial aid equivalent to the Questbridge deal. He plans to study Biomedical engineering or Computer Science there.

For Callejas, treading on territory no one in his family before him had was exciting and difficult.

“I kind of feel pressured a bit because I’m the first one in my family,” said Callejas. “But then again, I’m kind of enjoy being the first one to go because it means I worked hard to get there and it’s showing perseverance.”