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  • Vive Griffith

Meet Irene Salas, A Free Minds Graduate Expanding Her Horizons

This profile originally appeared on our site in 2017.

Irene Salas

On the last night of class this year in Free Minds, Irene Salas addressed the students she had mentored since August. “Thank you for your courage,” she told them. “Thank you for your persistence. And most of all, thank you for bringing your voices – your individual voices – to the room. I love to hear all of y’all because it makes the world a lot bigger.”

It was the desire to make her own world bigger that led Irene to Free Minds in the summer of 2013. She was just turning 40 with a husband, two children, and an extended family she helped care for. She had hungered to go to college, but had never even taken a class. In fact, no one in her family ever had. Then her husband Benny received an email about Free Minds at his job in maintenance at the City of Austin. He shared it with Irene.

“I told him it was too good to be true. Who’s going to pay your tuition, pay your books, watch your kids, and feed you? C’mon.”

Even so, she applied to the program. Her previous work in the health and human services area of the county had taught her that if she wanted to change things “on a grand scale” she needed an education. When she determined that Free Minds was indeed for real, she signed on. After graduating in 2014, she was hired as the program’s first classroom assistant. She attends class each night and serves as a role model, cheerleader, and mentor to students. Seeing a peer who had dealt with difficult circumstances can make the difference for a student.

“I tell them I did it, and you can too. And I mean it. I was in the same boat. I had barriers, I had problems come up in my life. But the further you get, the more successful you’re going to be with those problems.”

Irene admits she almost didn’t finish the program after encountering a family crisis. She was ready to give up when a Free Minds professor talked to her as they walked to their cars after class. He offered empathy and helped her realize that quitting was the easier route, but not the best one. Since then, Irene has been a model of dedication. She has attended classes at Austin Community College each semester, working toward a degree in liberal arts that she plans to further with bachelor and master’s degrees. This fall she was inducted into the local chapter of Phi Theta Kappa, the national honor society, in recognition of her academic achievement. It’s clear that what happens in a Clemente Course impacts not just the individual student but the world around them, and Irene is the perfect example of that. Her success ripples outward. Her presence in the Free Minds classroom helps others move toward their goals. And in June 2016 her husband Benny started taking college classes, earning As just like his wife. Their two children are awestruck at how hard their parents are working. And Irene knows their worlds are growing bigger as a result. “They are both seeing that education helps you to be the kind of person you always wanted to be,” Irene says. “I’m glad they are getting to see us do it. In turn they are going to be much better versions of themselves a lot earlier than Benny and I are getting to be. If they thought we were good before, imagine how much better we are going to be in the next few years.”

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