She was 13 when her family fled to Mexico

At 13, Casandra helped her mother sell toys and homemade sandwiches on weekends at a local market. At 15, she took an after-school job at a local supermarket, earning an average of $9 a day working six days a week. “I was only paid in tips with no holidays off,” she said.

Increasingly, Casandra became anxious about the poor education she was getting in Mexico.

“School wasn’t challenging. I had so much potential and moving back here felt like I was wasting myself,” she said. “I was desperate to go back [to the U.S.].”

In the middle of her junior year, the family had saved enough to send Casandra back to California to stay with a friend’s family and finish at her old high school in Tracy.

About six months into the school year, Casandra took a job at a Sonic Drive-In, working five hours a day after school and on weekends. She didn’t have a car, so she walked the two miles from school.

Casandra said her dad’s story helped her push through the loneliness and fatigue. “I saw how hard he worked for us,” she said. “So I saved my money as much as I could.” Within one year, she had saved $900.

“My dad told me I was making more money in one day at the restaurant than he was making in one week back in Mexico,” she said.

By her senior year, Casandra knew that she wanted to go to good college and pursue a degree in international business. She applied to a few state and private schools, including San Francisco State University and University of the Pacific, and was accepted by all of them.

University of the Pacific was her first choice. She had visited the campus and loved it. But it would cost her about $60,000 per year.

She received a $500 academic scholarship from a local Hispanic business group, a $3,500 scholarship from University of the Pacific and a $6,500 President’s Scholarship for academic excellence. She also received $5,000 in financial aid. “That whole process was very complicated for me,” she recalled. “I had to send paperwork back to Mexico. No one knew how to help me, especially with my parents’ situation.”

Ultimately, however, it wasn’t enough.

“My parents weren’t going to be able to pay for my tuition fees, room and board, food, transportation,” she said. “They assured me they would find a way, but I was tired and missed my family.”

A dream re-imagined

Overwhelmed, Casandra returned to Mexico in June 2016.

“I didn’t get to enjoy my teenage years because of the constant stress I was in. I wanted to be home,” she said.

Casandra has been back in Mexico for over four years now. She lives with her family and tries to support herself as much as she can.