For Venezuelan Immigrants, College is Family Experience

Published on: January 07, 2009

Imagine, if you dare, the journey from the familiar to the unfamiliar. Think about leaving behind most of everything you’ve every known and worked for. Think of saying goodbye to long-time friends and elder family members and then immigrating to a new country, thousands of miles away, with its own language, culture, social customs and educational system.

What follows is the story of the Hernandez family, who emigrated from Venezuela to the United States and to Houston three years ago. Included in their story is a theme of determination, hard work and a supportive family network in which education plays a key role and is prime motivation for the hopes and dreams of two generations.

LARISSA’S STORY

In the fall of 2005, Larissa Hernandez was a teenager, going to school in Anaco, a city of slightly more than 100,000 population in the state of Anzoategui–located in the northern region of Venezuela. Her father, who had earned a scholarship to the University of Michigan, had returned to his native country after earning his degree, to work in the energy industry, and to marry Lourdes, his wife.  Lourdes, who was trained as a school teacher, owned her own business after rearing her two sons and Larissa.

However, as the country’s president continued making policies that financially impacted many people, the Hernandez family made a decision that would be life-changing…for everyone.  “My mother had to give up her business and my dad was working for a Canadian company that closed because of the political situation, so he decided to start looking for a job out of the country.

“Fortunately, my father was able to find a job in the United States, so my family immigrated on Oct. 6, 2005,” said Larissa, now 19. “I remember because the day after we moved was my 16th birthday.”

“At first I was really sad because I had lived near my grandparents for a long time and now they would be thousands of miles away,” she said.  “We hated to leave, but we knew it was a good opportunity for my family…for all of us.”

“It was difficult for my family when we first arrived,” Larissa explained, “and everything was so new…and so different. We struggled at first, because we didn’t have the money to buy the things we had back home.

“Too, in Venezuela, we graduate at age 16, so I was ready to graduate from high school and my brother Lester had already graduated.  But, when we settled in the Spring and enrolled in Spring High School, I was placed in ninth grade–because I didn’t know English well enough, and my brother was put into 11th grade.”

The newly-arrived teenager found high school to be a whole new world from the one she knew in South America.  “High school was harder in Venezuela,” she admitted. “I had to learn English, which was difficult, but the education was harder there, even though I knew Spanish.  Here, I already knew almost everything–chemistry, biology–so my class work was easy, but to learn the language was the hard part. 

“In high school, it’s so frustrating when you want to say something and people don’t understand you,” she remembered. “You cannot talk because people weren’t getting it–but I realized if I didn’t talk, I’d never get any better.  I also realized while it was easier and more comfortable to speak Spanish with my Hispanic friends, it would be helpful to make friends with English-speaking students so I could hear the language and learn meanings. Now, I am bi-lingual,” she said proudly.

Another difference was the rewards and opportunities available in South America for students who work hard in high school.  “In Venezuela, if you’re a good high school student, you are given a lot of good opportunities,” she explained, “and there are public universities, so people with little money can get a college education because they don’t have to pay to go to the university.”

To catch up, the determined Larissa worked hard to learn the language of her new country and to earn her high school diploma.  “I took summer school and as many classes as I could take each semester, just so I could graduate by the time I was 18,” she explained.  “I also was allowed to take my junior and senior years together.”

Lester, her brother, also worked hard to finish the requirements of his new high school, doubling up in his studies so he could earn his diploma and begin college, pursuing a degree in music, his passion.

“Our older brother–Luzwig–is 23 and had a career in computer systems in Venezuela,” said Larissa.  “He’s now attending St. Benedict University in New Orleans, where he is majoring in philosophy and studying for the priesthood.”

As soon as she had earned her high school diploma from Spring High School, Larissa joined her brother Lester at Lone Star College-North Harris.  “At first, I wanted to be a dentist, but that profession required a very expensive education, so I had to give up that dream.” 

Her next choice–graphic design–was appealing because she has always been interested in art.  “Now that I’m in graphic design, I love it–and I know I made the right choice,” she said, adding that she was totally surprised to win an art scholarship this year.  “So many people applied. I thought I wouldn’t have a chance,” she exclaimed.

Larissa’s work ethic–and that of her brothers–reflects the value their parents place on education.  “It’s something they expect of us,” she said, “but I do it because it’s really important to me, as well.”

Coming to the same campus with her brother was an easy transition for the now-19-year-old Larissa.  “Even though my brother was already a student, when I enrolled I got so much help…from everyone.  They explained to me about majors and each of my teachers have all really been good.  One pushed me to apply for a scholarship.  They pushed me every day and I didn’t think I could get it.  I currently have a 3.5 Grade Point Average, but, hopefully, it will be even higher.”

LESTER’S STORY

Lester was 19 when he found himself as a junior at a brand new high school in a foreign country.

Repeating classes he had in Venezuela, he concentrated more effort on English and U.S. History–and in one year, received his diploma from Spring High School.  His next stop: Lone Star College-North Harris.

“When I arrived on campus, I was so surprised about how helpful everyone was, from the head of the music department to the tutors that helped me,” Lester recalled. “A friend of ours from Puerto Rico was attending classes at LSC-North Harris, but he was the only person I knew there…and our older brother had also gone to LSC-North Harris and had a really good experience. Sometimes I would go with him to the gym and even before I graduated from Spring, I knew I wanted to go to school at LSC-North Harris.”

About the only road block Lester met was English composition.  “I had a lot of trouble writing papers during my first year,” he admitted, “but everyone was so helpful, so encouraging and the tutors taught me how to write a successful paper. I really appreciate that.  Here at LSC-North Harris, if you need help, you always find it.”
 
What was his biggest adjustment when he came to the U.S. and to Houston?

“That’s a hard question,” he said.  “The language wasn’t really that hard. I picked up English fast, so I would say it was the culture…so much different from the culture of my country. There are many Hispanics on the North Harris campus–from Mexico, Central and South America, but even though we are all Hispanics, sometimes I would say something in Spanish and my Hispanic friends didn’t know what I was saying. Each Hispanic culture has its own meanings.

“On the other hand, I would say it was a beautiful experience for me,” Lester continued. “When I came to Houston, it was the first time I ever ate Mexican food.  It was also an opportunity for me to become familiar with the blues and jazz–since this country was the birthplace for those styles.  When I came here, I discovered BB King and it was just like magic.  Wow! It was amazing.”

He pointed out that sports are very different in the U.S.  “Most of my friends from South America, Central America and Mexico are passionate about soccer,” Lester explained, “but in Venezuela, we’re really good at baseball–like Puerto Rico and Cuba.  Our players play for the New York and White Sox.”

And, dating is also very different.  “I go out with friends and love to dance salsa and the meringue, but right now I’m really focused on my degree.  I’m taking eight classes and two bands,” he said.  “As an example, my Wednesday begins at 9 a.m. and ends at 9 p.m., so there’s honestly no time for a relationship.”

Lester’s ultimate goal?  “I would like to go to University of North Texas, but would like to stay at Lone Star College-North Harris a little bit longer to learn from my teachers,” he said.  “I really want to be prepared because UNT is a very difficult university…and I know my teachers have much to teach me.  Our music department at LSC-North Harris is very strong.

THE OTHER PART OF THE STORY

In an effort to supplement her family’s income, Lourdes Hernandez, 44, planned to offer tutoring for students wanting to learn the Spanish language after settling in Houston.

“She was a teacher in Venezuela and had an associate degree in teaching,” Larissa explained.  “She hadn’t worked in that field in years, but she knew in order to teach Spanish, she had to know English, so she enrolled in an English as a Second Language (ESL) program at LSC-North Harris.

“At the same time, she saw all I had to do for my classes and it really appealed to her,” Larissa continued, “so after she completes her ESL training, she may go into the graphic arts to earn a degree.  She’s always liked crafts and enjoys painting and drawing.”

Both Larissa and Lester are proud of their mother and her determination to keep learning. “My family has totally changed…and we’ve received a lot of support and encouragement from the people at Christ the Good Shepherd Catholic Church,” Larissa said, “but all of us also have found a home at LSC-North Harris…and we love it here.  People are so nice, you feel like you’re at home and I love coming to class.

“Right now, I take five classes–day classes and night classes,” she continued. “Sometimes I stay and wait for my brother because I can concentrate here–and if I need help, there are tutors in the learning centers, there are computers to use.  It’s just great!

“At LSC-North Harris, there are labs, tutors, a library where you get help, the learning center–they have everything there…and the teachers are fantastic.  The classes are small, so the teachers spend the time we need to learn.  It’s obvious–they’re trying to help you do your best without overloading you.

“In drawing, everybody’s different–I’m not the best, but the teacher actually cares – so there are a lot of people who are taking the course because their major requires it but there are areas where they are good and the teacher encourages that. After I complete my degree, I hope to go on to a university and major in graphic design.

Lester agrees with his younger sister:  “I would tell anyone this is absolutely a great place.  They’ll get a good education, plus there’s help if they need it and lots of support.  Teachers are interested…and if they notice you’re having trouble, they will always find solutions to your problem. My teachers really prepare you–in all aspects of the field.  It’s been a good experience. It’s a wonderful place and it’s changed my life.

“At home, we make an effort to speak English, but 15 minutes after we say we’re going to speak English for the entire week, we’ve forgotten and are speaking Spanish,” Lester continues. “When I was in Venezuela, I never thought I would ever speak English. When I came here and started learning English, one day I had the realization–Wow! I’m speaking English–it’s something that will definitely help me in the future!”

For more information on the accounting programs available at Lone Star College-North Harris, contact Russon at 281.618.5618.

Lone Star College System consists of five colleges, including CyFair, Kingwood, Montgomery, North Harris, and Tomball, six centers and Lone Star College-University Center. It is the largest college system in the Houston area, and third largest community college district in Texas. To learn more, visit LoneStar.edu.