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  • Vive Griffith

Sandy Fernandez Believes in Always Aiming High

Sandy Fernandez remembers how nervous she was when she first entered the classroom in August 2017 to begin her journey in Free Minds, the Clemente Course in Austin, Texas. But giving the program a try was true to her motto: “Don’t hit low. Always hit high.”

“Sometimes we put limitations on ourselves, and they get so strong we don’t have the vision to do more,” she says. “I wanted to see if it was possible for me to go to college, and this was the opportunity to find out.”

Sandy was born in Mexico City and completed all her prior schooling there. While she could speak English well, she wasn’t confident in her ability to write in the language, and she’d never read a whole book in it. Soon she was tackling Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure and Plato’s Republic alongside her classmates and drafting her first college papers.

They wouldn’t be her last. After excelling in Free Minds, where she read an original poem in the graduation ceremony, Sandy continued at Austin Community College. She earned her associate degree and applied for programs in social work. She was accepted everywhere she applied, including The University of Texas at Austin.

That, too, was a way of “hitting high.” Fewer than one in four transfer applicants are accepted into the university, and it can often seem to community college students that it’s not even worth trying. For Sandy, those were motivators. She decided that was where she wanted to go and tailored her schedule around taking the classes that would get her there. She earned more than 80 credits, far more than the 30 she needed to apply. And she kept a detailed diary of all her volunteer activities and hours to make her application as strong as possible.

Today she’s not just a student in the UT Austin School of Social Work, but an endowed scholarship recipient as well. She will graduate in 2022. And she hopes to use her degree to help other immigrants overcome obstacles and move toward the life they aspire to: “I want to empower people to do whatever their dreams are and to believe in the possibilities. I want them to know they can do it.”

Attending college full-time while raising two school-aged sons, working, and helping run a family business is hard work, and Sandy admits that she doesn’t always know how she juggles it all. Sometimes she feels guilty that going to school has made her less available for her children, a concern common to adult students. But recently her younger son told her to “Just keep doing it” and she realized that pursuing her dreams is not something she does just for herself. She does it for her family too.

“When you put your own goals so high, they know they have all these possibilities and that they can do things,” she says. “They cannot look down.”

That’s a lesson she is glad to be able to share with her children and a reminder that even though she was nervous and uncomfortable during each step of her journey, the important thing was that she stepped through the doors anyway, including that first one in 2017. “Free Minds was the beginning of everything,” Sandy says. “If I hadn’t jumped in, I wouldn’t have seen the possibilities for myself. Sometimes I feel like I’m dreaming, believe me.”

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