Common Thread

by Keith Barber


Maria Mendieta entered the Information Systems Building at Wake Forest on Feb. 21 with her 15-monthold daughter, Eliana, on her hip and with her 2-and-ahalf- year-old son, Oswaldo, in tow. “They’re pretty easy babies,” Maria, 19, said. “They have their ups and downs, temper tantrums and mood swings but mostly, they’re pretty easy.” Maria, a senior at Parkland High School, attended the workshop on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid to obtain a new personal identification number and to ensure her high school transcripts had been sent to the college of her choice, Forsyth Tech. Two weeks before the workshop, Maria, who lives at the Children’s Home in Winston-Salem with Oswaldo and Eliana, heard from Forsyth Tech that she had been admitted for the fall 2009 semester. Maria said she was overcome with joy at the news, and immediately called everyone she knew. Maria said she plans on pursuing a degree in nursing. Now she will await an award letter from the community college. “I would be la primera in my family from Managua, Nicaragua to attend college to further my education and enrich my mind to become a better person,” Maria wrote in an essay included in her Forsyth Tech application. “Going to college to me would mean that I’ve crossed the borders like my mother once did to have a better life for herself and her unborn child.” Maria’s mother, Jacqueline, crossed the US-Mexico border nearly 20 years ago after traveling from Managua while she was pregnant with Maria. Upon meeting Maria, one can’t help but be impressed by her resilience and positive attitude. The petite 19-year-old appears to have the uncanny ability to take every adversity life throws at her and transform it into a positive. Maria said her inspiration to pursue a degree in nursing comes from getting postnatal care challenges. With each trip to the doctor, Maria said her children were helping her practice and learn medicine. Maria said prenatal care for both children was compromised by the fact she had no health insurance. Currently, Eliana and Oswaldo’s health care insurance is covered under Medicaid. The three of them live at the Children’s Home in Winston-Salem, which provides among other services a non-profit foster care house. Maria said her Medicaid was cut off when she was living in Florida with her children’s father. At age 17, Maria was caring for one infant child while pregnant with her second. She dropped out of high school so she could work full time to pay the bills. Then she realized her life was going nowhere. “I know I wanted to keep going on,” she said. “I didn’t want to stop and not finish high school. I’m big on pride. My mom told me to keep going on and no matter how hard life is treating you, keep moving on — think positive and just smile. I’m very determined. I want to do more. On my mom’s side of the family, I’ll be the first one to graduate high school and go to community college.” Maria moved back to Winston-Salem two years ago from Florida to live with her aunt when she found out she was pregnant with Eliana. Parkland High School represents the fifth school Maria has attended in Winston-Salem. As a child, Maria’s stepfather, Antonio, moved her family to the area in pursuit of jobs in construction. Maria said she moved from school to school due to her family’s nomadic lifestyle. Maria had to take English as a Second Language for three years before she could be mainstreamed at her elementary school. On the afternoon of Feb. 21, Eliana rests on Maria’s hip eating a cookie, as Oswaldo runs around the main quad at Wake Forest. “By going to college I would become one less statistic,” Maria continues. “I want to go to college to be able to support my family and give back my knowledge to the community and possibly the world.” Maria said she moved into the Children’s Home last fall. She doesn’t think of herself as homeless, just someone who’s had to move a lot in her life. Maria’s mother and her four younger siblings plan on moving to Winston- Salem this summer. Maria and her extended family are planning on getting a place together. But for now, the Children’s Home, a non-profit whose mission is “to grow healthy futures for children, adults and families by ministering to the mind, body and spirit,” is a good place to be, she said. “I don’t have to worry about where I’ll be sleeping or how I’m going to get food or a few other things that I had to worry about when I wasn’t there before,” Maria said. “I don’t have to stress a lot. My kids, they have fun.” Maria also takes independent living classes offered by the Children’s Home. Maria wants to transfer from a community college to a four-year institution. She plans on getting her associates degree, then going to work before pursuing a bachelor’s degree and perhaps even a master’s degree someday. “I’m going to school to get a degree. The size doesn’t really matter,” she said. “I’ve been living on my own. I didn’t have to wait until I got into college to know who I am. I already know who I am and what I want to do for my life and for my kids.” Maria’s resilience is evident in her life stories. She speaks of attending summer school at a Miami-area high school, giving birth to Oswaldo on a Friday afternoon and returning to school the following Monday morning. “I’m an ambitious, driven soul who wants to help those in need by becoming a traveling nurse, and giving people a lending hand and hope,” Maria said. “Going to college I would be a role model to many young ladies around my age, and mostimportantly, my babies. I want to demonstrate that even though we makewrong turns, that sets us off balance or life hits us in manydirections, we must continue ahead in life to pursue our goals anddreams.”

Having options

LauraBesterci returned to her home in the Adams Farm subdivision ofGreensboro on Feb. 17 to find a letter from UNC-Chapel Hill waiting forher. Laura, a senior at Ragsdale High School, had just come from bandpractice. Laura handled the thin letter as if she already knew thecontents. “It says they need my letter of recommendation tocomplete my application,” Laura said with a heavy sigh. Laura said sheapplied to UNC and the University of Texasbecause of their nationally ranked business schools, but she’s notgetting her hopes up. Some of Laura’s friends who applied early hadtheir applications deferred by UNC. Considering her friends’ academicstanding, Laura thinks it’s a long shot she’ll be accepted to ChapelHill. But she has options. Due in large part to constant reminders fromher mother, Ann, to complete her applications last fall, Laura hasalready received acceptance letters from Western Carolina, AppalachianState and UNC Wilmington. At first, Laura wasleaning toward UNCW, but now she’s thinking she’ll enroll atAppalachian State in the fall. But she will wait for letters from UNCand Texas,which are due to go out on March 20. Once Laura makes her finaldecision, her family will have to figure out how to pay for it. “Ournest egg is about half of what it was,” Ann Bestercisaid. “We had plenty to go four years if we had to pay the whole thingand it’s about half of what it was due to the economy.” Lastmonth, Ann said she was laid off from her administrative assistant job,which has made paying for Laura’s tuition, room and board an evengreater challenge. Ann said she’s put herself in charge ofresearching all possible scholarships Laura could qualify for. Annadmits she missed Appalachian State’s final financial aid deadline tosubmit Laura’s FAFSA, so she’s hopeful that next year, her daughterwill qualify for student aid. Ann said she researched otherscholarships on, a free scholarship search-engine website. As a result of her research, Ann bought Laura The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. If Laura reads the book and writes an essay, she can get up to $10,000 toward college. Annsaid scholarships seem to be hard to come by even for top students likeLaura if you are considered middle- or upper middle-class by FAFSAstandards. “You have to be a genius [to gain a scholarship]and yes, Laura’s very smart. She’s not the valedictorian so she’s a bitlost in the mix,” Ann said. “It seemed that if you were trying to doall the right things, it seems like you were kind of penalized unlessyou were an athlete.” Tom Benza, assistant director offinancial aid at Wake Forest University, agreed with Ann’s assessmentof the inadequacies of the FAFSA form. “What you frequently find isthere is ‘high need’ and ‘no need’ and the middle section is reallygetting squeezed,” Benza said. “We’re talking the middle income range —two parents both with incomes. At that level, the students arereally only qualifying for federal loan aid and possibly federal workstudy.” Benza added that federal grant aid is reserved for the neediestof the needy, those families receiving temporary assistance or withincomes less than $20,000. “Everyone else is trying to bridgethe gap,” Benza said. But there is good news for parents ofcollege-bound seniors. Last year, Congress raised the maximum PellGrant to $4,500. And this year, each student applying forfinancial aid can request up to $2,000 in a Stafford non-need basedloan, Benza said. As high school seniors wait and watch for thatelusive acceptance letter, the clock continues to tick. “You’ve gotyour May 1 deadline to get your tuition deposit in to hold your spot,so you’re in this crunch time with all this money due at one time,” shesaid. Terri Jones, a good friend of the Besterci family, said parentsof college-bound seniors quickly learn that well-rounded students havean advantage in the competition for financial aid. Jones’ son, Parker,is a classmate of Laura’s. Terri said all three of herchildren have gone on mission trips, excelled in Scouts and performwork with the local urban ministry. “They’re well-roundedpeople and I think when you go to apply now that counts as much as yourGPA,” Jones said. Ann Besterci concurred with Jones. “Allcolleges are going to look for the same things,” she said. “Even thisyear, I pushed [Laura] to be on the softball team, because it looksgood that you didn’t do it just one year and quit.”

Thecompetition gets stiffer as enrollment at area universities has seen anuptick this year. Last year, Wake Forest received 9,000 applications,and this year the school has already surpassed 11,000 applications,Benza said. Financial aid applications rise with the tide. Wake Forest,like a number of other private institutions, has had to implement atuition increase. Ann Besterci is confident her family will find a way to put Laura through college. Laura is still awaiting letters from UNC and Texas, but it appears she’s made her decision. “Alreadyhaving a roommate picked out for App, that makes it more appealing,”Laura said. “I wasn’t really for Wilmington because I don’t know how toswim. The beach scene will be there and I don’t know how to do itbecause I can’t swim. I might fall on my butt a couple of timessnowboarding.”

A late start

Inthe late afternoon, east Winston-Salem falls under the shadow of USHighway 52 as the sun sinks slowly behind the downtown skyscrapers. Theribbon of highway has long been considered a social and economicdividing line in a city built by the tobacco and textile industries. AsRobert Bernard Willis rode along Cleveland Avenue en route to his homeon March 4, he pointed out two young men standing on the street corner. “You see what I’m talking about?” he said. Minutes earlier,Robert, a high school senior, had discussed what growing up in eastWinston-Salem has been like for him while sitting in the guidanceoffice of Mount Tabor High School.

MariaMendieta, a senior at Parkland High School, works on her FreeApplication for Federal Student Aid while her 15-month-old daughterEliana waits during FAFSA Day at Wake Forest on Feb. 21. Mendieta planson enrolling at Forsyth Tech this fall and pusuing her associatesdegree in nursing with the ultimate goal of working in the health carefield. (photo by Keith T. Barber)

“I can leave here rightnow, and probably go get some drugs, and I can start selling them assoon as I leave here. That’s how easy it is,” he said. “It’s justaround me. It’s always been around me, everywhere I go, everywhere I move.” Robert saidhe stays on the straight and narrow “to get to a better place.” ConstanceDewberry, Robert’s guidance counselor at Mount Tabor, said his highschool transcript is not an accurate reflection of his abilities as astudent. “Have you applied anywhere, Robert?” Dewberry asked. “Winston-SalemState, but I couldn’t give them the $40 for it,” Robert replied,referring to the application fee. Dewberry informed Robert that sincehe received an application fee waiver for the SAT, he would qualify fora waiver for his WSSU application. Dewberry also pointed out thatadmissions counselors from the school have come to Mount Tabor onseveral occasions throughout the school year, and Robert failed to takeadvantage of the opportunity. Dewberry said the most challenging aspectof working with Robert is his reluctance to reach out for help. Theone-hour conference Dewberry had with Robert on March 4 appeared to bethe most productive session of his high school career. Dewberry, whohas served as a guidance counselor for 18 years, said she has a numberof students like Robert who have the ability but not the parentalinvolvement to give them that extra push. “I don’t know if he hasdeveloped the capacity to reach out for help,” Dewberry said. “If hehad facilitated this conference a long time ago or his mom or someonefrom his family had facilitated it, he would probably have anacceptance letter now. I rely upon students and parents to get to me.”Typically, Robert has only met with Dewberry if he had a problem with ateacher or needed assistance with credit recovery. Dewberry pushedRobert on March 4 to define his first college of choice. Robert saidhe’s always wanted to attend Winston-Salem State. “Iwas interested because it was real close to my family,” Robert said.“It’s right down the street from where I’m at. My granddad’s been sick.That’s what mostly been on my mind all the time. I don’t want to go toofar in case something happens to him.” One call placed to DouglasKilgore secured Robert an appointment on March 6. Kilgore requestedRobert bring four things with him to the meeting: his high schooltranscript, an application fee waiver form, a criminal background checkand an explanation of a suspension from school. Robertgathered all the required paperwork and met with Kilgore at theAnderson Building on the WSSU campus on the morning of March 6. Kilgorepored over Robert’s high school transcript, while he waitedexpectantly. “I can go as low as a 2.5 and 800 [on the SAT]but the student has to have both,” Kilgore said. “The SAT doesn’t seemlike a problem for you, but your GPA is going to prevent me fromworking with you. I could even go as low as a 2.4, or a 2.3 but that’swhere the board cuts it off. Robert’s current GPA is 2.18. “I thinkyou’re an excellent student, Robert, and I want you to be a Ram, but Idon’t think I can get you in here as a freshman,” Kilgore continued.“I’m going to have to get you in here as a transfer student.” Thefact Robert’s transcript reflects he’s met the UNC system courserequirements means he can be admitted with 12 semester credit hoursfrom a community college, Kilgore said. “It’s good that you’re gettinga college prep diploma. You did take the right courses so that willlessen your time at the community college,” he said. “What you take atForsyth Tech will determine whether or not we admit you.” Kilgoreexplained to Robert that if he could take 12 hours this summer atForsyth Tech, he could enter WSSU as a transfer statement in the fall.But he didn’t recommend the crash course approach. “I canadmit you if you take 12 semester credits, college transferablecredits,” Kilgore said. Kilgore pointed out there is an upcoming policyand procedural change for the UNC system that will elevate therequirement to 30 semester hours. He said Robert might be able tocomplete his credit hours before the policy change. In general, Kilgoresaid the high school seniors he interviews are generally betterprepared for college than those from previous years. “I thinkstudents are getting more academically talented, but I think it’s anecessity to survive in this economy,” he said. Robert, a startingdefensive back on the Mount Tabor football team, said he’s interestedin enrolling at Central Carolina Sports Academy in Greensboro tocontinue his football career. Robert said playing in the state championship game in 2007 helped solidify his decision to play football in college. Robertsaid he wants to be the first person from his family to graduate fromcollege. “It would mean a whole lot,” he said. “Right about now, I cantell you that all eyes are on me. Of the three kids my momma got, I’mthe last to graduate. My granddad, I think he believes in me, but hewants to see what I’m capable of.” Robert said he’s determined to stayon course to graduate from college, because he’s witnessed so manydreams shattered on the streets of east Winston-Salem. “I seepeople going through a lot with their families, they just figure theydo whatever, go deal drugs, but I maintain myself well,” Robert said. “I ain’t done nothing; I’m still in school. That’s why I wake upthinking I could be somewhere else or doing something else, but stillI’m holding on as much as I can.”