Darlene Bustos: Tulsa, Oklahoma
Just before her sophomore year of high school, Darlene became pregnant, and as a result, began to miss classes and fall behind. After multiple absences, her school district finally asked her to leave. At the time she was focused on having her baby, school was a secondary concern. But after having her son Alex and enrolling him in a Head Start program, Darlene thought about her own academic future. Wanting to not only provide a good example for her son, but to catch up academically and graduate, Darlene enrolled herself in the Union Alternative School for at-risk students. Darlene is currently in school and working towards graduation day and beyond, while raising Alex.
Stephanie Alvarado: Chicago, Illinois
Stephanie was weighed down by the tough reputation of her school. Gage Park High School is under-resourced, and as Stephanie describes in the film, the metal detectors students must go through make the environment feel like a “prison.” Stephanie became involved in Voices of Youth in Chicago Education (VOYCE), a youth-leadership project that aims to decrease the city’s dropout rate. One key project of VOYCE is a peer jury, in which student-jurors discuss and then determine solutions for their peers who have committed a minor infraction that might otherwise result in suspension or expulsion. Through VOYCE, not only did Stephanie’s grades improve dramatically, but she also participated in several activities that helped build her confidence: as a peer juror at school; as an outspoken activist in support of Chicago teachers; and as part of a student group helping to build schools in Senegal.
Chastity Salas: Bronx, New York
After Chastity and her family — consisting of her mother and three younger brothers — became homeless, she coped with the situation as best she could. But the responsibility she felt toward her family made her question the point of applying to college, and interfered with her classes. The staff at Chastity’s school, Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High in the South Bronx, recognized the challenges in part because of the small classes and personal attention given to students. Through the services of Children’s Aid Society, which partners with the school, Chastity was able to discuss her problems and her goals with the school’s student success coordinator. Through this process, Chastity received the guidance she needed to make plans for her future, including completing college applications. Chastity thrived at school, using writing as an outlet for her feelings. In June 2013, she graduated from Fannie Lou and is headed to SUNY Potsdam in the fall.
Eduardo Corona: San Diego, California
Eduardo’s parents moved to San Diego from Mexico in the hopes of providing he and his siblings with a better life and a better education. But as both parents worked long hours, Eduardo and his siblings were often unsupervised. Growing up in the City Heights neighborhood — what the San Diego Police Department refers to as the “probation capital of San Diego” — Eduardo’s sister and older brother became involved in gangs. Following the model, Eduardo joined a gang himself. While hanging out at the “Y” he met Chris Yanov, founder of Reality Changers, an innovative college prep and youth leadership organization that gave Eduardo his first opportunity to participate in something other than a gang. It was a fresh start, but he was still connected to his gang. When Eduardo was arrested and facing six years in prison, Chris and Reality Changers didn’t give up on him. Chris challenged Eduardo to improve his grades. Eduardo brought his grade point average up and was accepted to the prestigious “Academic Connections” program at the University of California, San Diego, eventually graduating from high school and becoming a college student. Today, Eduardo is a Reality Changers counselor, serving as a mentor in much the same way that Chris mentored him.
Gustavo Madrigal: Griffin, Georgia
Gustavo started school in the U.S. in fifth grade, after being brought from Mexico by his undocumented parents. They emphasized academics and set high standards, but Gustavo’s undocumented status presented serious barriers to attending college. Feeling hopeless about his future, he contemplated dropping out. But his parents and friends urged him to finish school, even if it meant not being able to attend college despite having excellent grades. Gustavo graduated and took a job at a gas station. Growing up in the small town of Griffin, he thought he might be the only one who was undocumented, but while searching online for ways to get back to school, he stumbled upon information about the DREAM Act. Energized by his peers in the undocumented community, Gustavo became an activist himself, advocating for passage of the DREAM Act. Through other activists, he learned about Freedom University in Georgia, a project in which university professors donate their time to teach college-level courses to students who want to go to college, but can’t because of their immigration status. With their help, Gustavo was accepted to and received a full scholarship from a four-year university in New England, where he’s currently in his sophomore year.
Juan Bernabe: Lawrence, Massachusetts
Juan came to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic with his mother at age 11. In his freshman year in high school, he came out as gay and was subject to bullying and verbal abuse by his peers. Feeling isolated and discouraged, Juan was on the verge of dropping out. But the performing arts academy at Lawrence High exposed him to a different world. “You can live free in the dance studio,” Juan tells us in the film. Dance and performing arts gave Juan a vehicle to express himself, building his confidence. It also helped him academically, since students in the program must keep their grades up in order to perform. Juan choreographed a dance about coming out and, in his senior year, a prize-winning fox trot in the school dance competition. He did all this while writing for the student-run newspaper, What’s Good in the Hood, which seeks to change the negative stereotype of Lawrence. Juan graduated from Lawrence High in June, 2013, and is headed to Denison University in Ohio.