Jessica Herrera’s high school resume is as impressive as any teen in the country, but it’s her experiences outside the classroom that might set her apart.
The 18-year old recently graduated from Coral Gables Senior High School’s prestigious International Baccalaureate program with a 5.5 GPA. She scored a 1270 on her SAT.
And she’s been homeless much of the year.
“My senior year was always the year I looked forward to. But this year, things got really super hard at home,” Herrera said. “I just didn’t want to give up.”
Because of her perseverance, Herrera was accepted into Florida International University and will be attending the school for free thanks to a few scholarships she was recently awarded. She plans to major in psychology and wants to work with children.
A short time ago, the dream of attending college would have been nothing more than that – a dream.
Herrera’s parents, Nicaraguan immigrants, lost their jobs at the beginning of her senior year and the family was evicted from the house they were renting. They moved to an apartment but were evicted from there, too.
Things got so bad Herrera and her family spent many nights walking the streets of Miami looking for shelter. They eventually became squatters, living in vacant homes in Miami with no electricity or running water during the bitter cold snap in December.
"When we were walking the streets, I was worried about the homework I had to turn in the next day," Herrera said.
It would have been easy for the aspiring psychologist to quit and look for work to help her family out, but school was just that important. No one in Herrera's family had ever graduated high school, let alone attend a college in the U.S.
“My sister dropped out of school and I started thinking maybe I should drop out, too” she said. “There were times I came home and there was no food. I wanted to get a part-time job or something, but my mom told me to focus on school only.”
Following her parents’ advice, Herrera stuck with her challenging classes and teachers at the high school never knew about what she was facing once she left the campus.
“All they knew is that I didn’t have a computer at home,” Herrera joked. "I wanted to be the first in my family to graduate."
The family eventually split up, with Herrera's father leaving the area to look for work, and her mom and sister moving in with relatives. Herrera eventually took up refuge at a homeless shelter in downtown Miami, where she has lived for the past few months. The shelter life wasn’t new to her because her family lived there when she was a little girl.
The distractions of homelessness didn’t deter the young woman and she even had encouragement from the other homeless people at the shelter, who have kept an eye on her educational progress.
“The first day I was there, I started crying watching the kids on the playground because I remember being in the same situation when I was a little kids,” Herrera said. “The last two months people were always on me saying, ‘Did you do your homework? You better be doing your homework.’”
Even graduation day was bitter sweet for the financially-strapped family.
Just weeks before Herrera was to receive her diploma, she found out her mother’s residency had been terminated and she was going to be deported back to Nicaragua this summer. Herrera's dad couldn't miss a day of work.
Her mom was able to make it to the ceremony and watch Herrera walk across the stage.
Despite all the obstacles and hardships, Herrera says she is upbeat about the prospects of her future, which includes reuniting with her family once again.
“I don’t feel sorry for myself. I do feel it has made me stronger,” she said. “People really shouldn’t give up that easily. I almost did. Looking back on it, it was just a stupid idea."
"Anything is possible as long as you work hard enough for it.”
If you would like to help, please send donations to:
Jessica Herrera Account 10013175
Bank of Coral Gables
2295 Galiano Street
Coral Gables, FL 33134
Donations to an individual are not tax deductible but greatly needed and appreciated and go directly to the bank.