La Quinta High School
Desert Sands USD
La Quinta High School senior Lizbeth Luevano’s story begins with her parents coming to the United States from Mexico, but there’s no telling the distance she’ll travel as she prepares to become the first in her family to attend a university when she enrolls at Stanford University this fall.
Lizbeth recalls the challenge of learning English as a young student in elementary school—one of many barriers she would overcome during her educational career.
Since her father would travel across the United States to follow the harvest, this made Lizbeth eligible for the Riverside County Migrant Education Program that provides additional support to students and families.
“I remember they came to my house often, and helped my siblings and I with learning English,” Lizbeth said. “I’m really proud of my heritage and culture, but it was very difficult trying to grasp English and navigate the academic aspects of my life when my parents and our whole neighborhood only spoke Spanish.”
Lizbeth recalls how teachers at Truman Elementary School began to see her potential. By second grade, Lizbeth’s love of reading increased her vocabulary and she began learning math skills earlier than her classmates.
“That love for reading kept me going through middle school,” Lizbeth said.
Without reliable transportation, Lizbeth relied on friends, the Hernandez family, to take her to and from John Glenn Middle School. This later opened a pathway to attending La Quinta High School and enrolling in the rigorous International Baccalaureate (IB) Program.
Because of her proficiency in English, Lizbeth became the de facto translator for her family. At the same time, she often faced obstacles that nobody else in her family understood.
“It’s been difficult for my mom to know how to support me,” Lizbeth said. “The IB Program is so rigorous that it can be alienating in some aspects and sometimes, I’m having to figure things out like the college application process on my own.”
New Opportunities, Old Transportation Challenges
Lizbeth calls transportation “a huge barrier” in her life. She has relied on a patchwork solution of rides from neighbors and friends when she wasn’t walking or riding the city bus.
During her high school career, Lizbeth has served on the re-election campaign of U.S. 36th District Representative, Raul Ruiz, and as a legislative intern for Riverside County 4th District Supervisor, V. Manuel Perez. She currently serves as the youth commissioner of the 4th District Youth Advisory Council.
The 40-minute walks to and from school in the searing desert heat, in the rain, through the desert-area flood washes, and during early mornings and late nights helped strengthen Lizbeth’s resolve and never derailed her progress.
“If I had an AP Calculus study night before a quiz the next day, and it was raining, I’d take the umbrella and walk at night to the study sessions,” Lizbeth said.
As a junior, she enrolled in a class at College of the Desert which also unlocked unlimited rides on the local SunBus system. Countless hours spent waiting at the bus stop and criss-crossing the desert on the bus became her mobile study hall.
“I didn’t grow up in a quiet household. My mom was a babysitter, so we always had lots of kids in the house, and I was used to finding some order in the chaos,” Lizbeth said. “I just put on music and earbuds and concentrated on my work.”
Lizbeth’s long bus rides across town after school, then another back home at night, and then walking home, were a big strain as she attempted to balance community college and IB classes
“It helped me a lot with coordination and what to prioritize as no day was the same,” Lizbeth said. “It helped me grow a lot in my character. I’ve been able to obtain so much by being able to go through those difficulties.”
Finishing Strong And College-Bound
Despite her senior year being cut short by school closures due to the coronavirus pandemic, Lizbeth believes this year “has been a huge blessing.”
The results of her determination have come rolling in with invitations to join elite college campuses across the United States. Yale. Penn. Brown. Swarthmore. She applied to 11 colleges, and hasn’t received a single rejection letter.
Ultra-exclusive scholarships to make college a reality came in waves to ensure that paying for college would be one barrier she’d never face. She was named as a Questbridge Scholar, a Gates Millenium Scholar, and a national Horatio Alger Scholar. Any one of those awards on their own would be enough of a life-altering moment to cover the cost of college.
“It’s sort of insane,” Lizbeth said. “I just found out about it a few weeks ago and it is going to open some really exciting opportunities for me.”
Lizbeth has chosen to double major at Stanford University in biology and comparative studies in race and ethnicity with a concentration in human rights.
“I want to come back to the Coachella Valley and serve the desert area and families like mine as an immigration rights lawyer,” Lizbeth said. “I’m really invested in helping others overcome language barriers like I have and bring Hispanics to the political table.”
Migrant Education Program Offers Confidence And Opportunity
Lizbeth described one final barrier that most students wouldn’t understand or be able to face. A subtle cultural stigma called familiasmo that pervades the neighborhood and hints that students shouldn’t move far away and should stay home and contribute to supporting their family instead. She is determined to write a new story for her family and her community.
Beyond the support on the front end of her educational career, the Migrant Education Program helped Lizbeth see potential in herself. A steady stream of inspiring voices like program employees Angelica Basquez, Agustin Navarro, and Myra Sanchez, along with LQHS counselor Elva Pena, opened her eyes to many opportunities. She attributes much of her success to the summer programs, conferences, and college visits that she’s participated in since middle school.
“I don’t think I would have ever understood what it really meant to go to college before the trips where we visited colleges and experienced staying in the dorms,” Lizbeth said. “The program exposed us all to positive Latino mentors that I didn’t know before. That was the encouragement I needed to join the IB program in high school and continue my academic success.”
“Every time I hear success stories from the community leaders, I understand how important and influential those stories are,” Lizbeth said. “For me, it may be a torch I carry by myself, but it’s still very important to me that all my family and cousins know that it’s not just something that can’t happen to others. It isn’t impossible.”
Lizbeth knows that attending college can lead to becoming one of those influential voices for students like her.
“The powerful stories of all these individuals who were able to obtain a college education when America was still struggling to have minorities represented in the higher education system were what kept me going,” Lizbeth said. “My struggles are not necessarily my own, but, rather, they can have an impact on the youth that will come after me and the next generation.”
Note: If you would like to learn more about Lizbeth, The Desert Sun newspaper published a profile of her in today’s edition with additional details about her journey.