NHI Alumni, in their own words: Hope Pacheco
This is the first in a series of first-person accounts from NHI alumni. Hope Pacheco, by way of introduction for this remembrance, notes, “Ernie and Gloria were my first real life role models. They were a tangible example of what I could be, an educated Latina who served her community with pride, compassion and optimism. The NHI experience was not only inspirational, but transformational. I was challenged in every way to grow, learn, take risks, stand proud, and always have a firm handshake!”
I grew up in a big family, one of eight. Right here in Houston. We moved around a lot. Some years were good and stable, some years not so much. My only constant was school. I changed schools a lot, but each time, I’d start over and bury myself in learning, trying to catch up from all the moving around. It was the school routine that saved me from the chaos of uncertainty at home and it was the daily lunch that nourished and sustained me. I learned I could work really hard, produce a tangible product like classwork and get recognition with an A or a gold star or even a hug. I wanted more of that and worked harder every day. The chaos and stress of our lives left little room for smiles, fun, or pats on the back, yet I knew that my parents loved me. I knew they struggled to keep whatever they had for us and only wanted us to have a better life.
I couldn’t really picture what I wanted life to be like. I only knew what I didn’t want it to be like, a life of struggle, poverty and chaos. I watched my four older sisters not make it out of middle school. I knew education was going to be my way out of the life I didn’t want.
In middle school and high school, I kept up the pace of excelling in school despite whatever the barrier. I’d do homework by candlelight if the electricity was turned off. I’d sign up for extracurricular activities even if we couldn’t afford it and work out a payment plan with the sponsor. It wasn’t always easy, but I knew I had to have the “extras” if I wanted to get a scholarship. Good grades would not be enough. I held my breath and struggled through the embarrassment of not having the right clothes, supplies or equipment. At one point, I dropped out of school for several months. I felt like I was in a battle for my life as I watched my parents and my older sister’s struggle and then looked in the mirror one day and saw myself living the same struggle. It took the help of a lot of people, but I made it back to school and I recommitted myself to my goal of getting into college. Sacrifice became a way of life for me. In the end, the sacrifice paid off. I graduated in the top 10% of my class. I applied for every scholarship and got accepted to college.
I enrolled my freshman year at the University of Houston. I had enough money to live on campus. For me, the choice was easy. I knew that in order for me to fully commit myself to college completion, I had to live apart from my family.
The stakes were too high. My motivation for doing well in college was striving to leave the life I knew I didn’t want. I loved my family, but didn’t love the life we lived. It was still important for me to keep my family close, but to try to start a new life as a college student; I knew I had to have a fresh start. I still made time to visit my family. Even though we were only 45 minutes away from each other, my mom never stepped foot in my dorm. I think she didn’t feel like she was belonged on a college campus.
What I wanted more than anything was to be able to talk to my parents about college, my new world. Merging my two worlds became tricky. I wished they knew what picking classes meant or could help me with roommate drama or help me decide which organizations to join. I remember trying to talk to them and then getting so frustrated by their advice that made no sense to me. They just couldn’t relate. They didn’t have the college knowledge and couldn’t give me the advice I wanted. I learned to accept the support they could give.
I remembered that one of my high school program advisors used to say, “You have to dream with the dreamers.” He wanted to make sure that just because we were going to college and our parents didn’t have that same opportunity that we would still respect them and that their hopes and dreams were not less important than ours. He encouraged us to listen to our parents and family when they were talking about their dreams and not to rush to judgment or give them advice on the “realities” of their dreams. This proved to be difficult, but with patience and practice, it became easier. Just because we were fortunate to have a college experience, didn’t mean we were better. We had to be responsible in the way that we used our exposure and experience in college to help our parents and family. I learned that sometimes all my parents or family had were hopes and dreams. I was the lucky one who was benefitting from the sacrifices they made for me, benefitting from their hopes and dreams for me.
With no example to draw from my family, I had no real concept of what life would be like as a college student living on campus. Integrating into college life was left to my imagination, what I saw in the movies and the rest, I gathered from friends or other students. Part of me was ashamed that I didn’t know what to expect and the other part of me was determined not to let anyone see me stress over it. I decided I was going to live by the motto “fake it ‘til you make it.”
Sometimes it worked and sometimes, not so much. At times I thought I didn’t deserve to be in college, but I decided I to just show up anyway, even if I had to “fake it” until I belonged.
I learned to reach out and ask questions. I built my knowledge and comfort so I didn’t have to fake it. I learned to seek people out who could help me feel like I belonged. I joined student organizations, built a network of support, reached out to faculty and asked them to be my mentor. I realized that I didn’t have to take my college journey alone. As I built my life after college, my sorority sisters and my mentors continue to provide support to me today.
Being away from my family helped me find a stability I never knew before. Sometimes I felt guilty thinking about the chaos at home. I had to “reach in” and deal with my internal struggles. Accessing on campus support services was a blessing for me. I went to the health center, counseling center, career center and assessment center. If they offered help, I took it.
I eventually transferred to another school and graduated with a Bachelor’s in Social Work‐BSW. I returned home after graduation and completed my master’s degree in social work from UH GCSW. I spent the last ten years working with students who will be the first in their family to attend college. What a journey!