Edina grads Yesenia and Cris

Pictured in the Edina High School media center, Yesenia Martinez and Cris Sanchez became best friends after they both enrolled in AVID. The first-generation college students credit the program for helping navigate not only high school, but the college application process. (Sun Current staff photo by Andrew Wig)

For many students, graduating high school and going on to college was always an inevitability, an expectation passed down from one generation to the next.

Others, meanwhile, are tasked with finding their own path through the education system, as they become the first in their family to pursue a higher education. It’s that shared experience that’s brought Edina High School seniors Yesenia Martinez and Cris Sanchez together as best friends.

The pair met in pre-school and stayed in contact throughout the years, but when academics became increasingly crucial to their future, that bond intensified. Their junior year, Martinez and Sanchez started taking a class called AVID, which stands for Advancement Via Individual Determination. It’s meant to help students cultivate the academic skills necessary for success in the rest of their classes, paving the way for the next step in their lives.

“If it weren’t for AVID, we would not be this close,” Martinez said.

AVID is a national program with a small presence in Edina’s middle schools and high school. This year, there were eight seniors taking the class, which meets every day in the high school’s college and career center.

“I wish people talked more about AVID and the College and Career Center,” Sanchez said, “because I don’t know where I’d be if it wasn’t for them. Honestly, I don’t think I’d be going to (college).”

His parents, having immigrated from Ecuador, emphasized the importance of academics.

“They were always like, go to school, get good grades,” he said.

But when it came to the prospect of continuing that work after high school, “they didn’t know where to start,” he added.

Martinez, whose mother is from Mexico and father hails from El Salvador, experienced a change in her outlook on life when she got to high school and saw the options that lay before her.

“I knew that my parents hadn’t finished high school, not even middle school. So they would always just work, and I’d be like, ‘Oh, so work is money. So that’s kind of your life,’” Martinez said. … “And then when high school started, everyone was like, ‘You have to go to college, you have to go to college.’”

She knew she would need help if she were going to meet that expectation. But hesitant to rejoin AVID after first taking the class in middle school, she needed a push – and got one from Blanca Diaz De Leon, Edina High School’s Spanish-speaking cultural liaison.

“I ask all my students to attend those classes,” De Leon said.

From her own experience immigrating to the U.S., she knows how intimidating the college application process can be for newcomers. When she arrived from Mexico 10 years ago, her son enrolled at Eden Prairie High School as a junior, at a point when students and their families have to get serious about college preparations.

“I didn’t know that he had to apply, do essays, look for scholarships, have student loans, FAFSA, all those things,” De Leon said.

She explained that in Mexico, college is an entirely different proposition.

“We don’t have student loans. We don’t have dorms in our country,” she said.

At the same time, she works to dispel the notion that AVID is only for students of color.

“AVID is a class for students who have the desire to do better and they don’t know how,” De Leon said.

Sanchez was getting by academically without AVID, but he knew he could improve.

“I could be a pretty good student,” he said, “but I know I didn’t put in as much of the hard work that I could.”

It didn’t make things easier that English was not his first language.

“Spanish is my first language. English is my second. That’s where a lot of my struggles come from,” he said.

Also coming from a Spanish-speaking household, Martinez got assistance on her college application essay through AVID.

“They helped me write such a good essay. I’m so proud of that writing. If I could frame all 10 pages I would,” she said. “ … Actually, it was more like five. I exaggerate a little bit.”

College and beyond

Having secured her college admission, Martinez is still determining what kind of career she wants. This fall, she’s headed to Dougherty Family College, a two-year program at the University of St. Thomas that specializes in serving first-generation college students. She looks forward to being able to relate with her new classmates on a fundamental level.

“We all kind of come from the same struggle, the same kind of life,” she said.

Sanchez emerged from AVID with more defined plans, headed to Pace University in New York City to study theater. He says that path wouldn’t have been the first choice of his mother, who works in food service. She would have preferred he pursue a more stable career as a doctor, lawyer or accountant – “something that would have made me money,” Sanchez said.

But for him, money alone won’t do.

“I want something that’s a passion, and if it means I’m going to be serving people and having to be a waiter and stuff like that, while still having to audition for stuff, that’s totally fine by me, because I’ll be doing what I want to do,” he said.

That bold choice also comes with the harsh reality that he’ll be leaving friends and family behind.

“I don’t want to think about it,” Martinez said, tasting that bittersweetness that permeates the air this time of year, when one chapter of life closes so that another can begin.

– Follow Andrew Wig on Twitter @EdinaSunCurrent

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