Family financial crisis drives Monroe graduate toward success

Maria gets emotional while addressing the audience after receiving her 2015 LAWA Scholarship award.
Maria gets emotional while addressing the audience after receiving her 2015 LAWA Scholarship award. ogaines@charlotteobserver.com

Monroe High senior Maria Garcia has 12 siblings, a disabled father and an unemployed mother.

Finances are understandably tight for the Garcia family, but that didn’t stop the 18-year-old from enrolling in Wingate University for the fall semester to pursue her dream of being a dentist.

She is was one of eight area high school seniors who were awarded scholarships last week by the Latin American Women’s Association, a Charlotte-based nonprofit that supports high-achieving Latino teens who lack the money to attend college.

Garcia got the association’s attention in part because she told the women not to feel sorry for her or her family.

“I didn’t want them to pity me,” Garcia says. “They asked me to tell my story, and I didn’t want it to sound like I was complaining about my life, or that I was bragging about the things I’ve accomplished. I get that from my father, who is hard-working and doesn’t want anyone to feel sorry for him.”

Her accomplishments have been many, despite her parents’ financial struggles, including a series of civic, academic and sports awards. Garcia was on the Monroe High soccer, track, tennis and volleyball teams, while also involved with Junior ROTC, the National Honor Society, Key Club, Teens for Christ and student council advisory.

And she did it all while on the “A” honor roll.

Monroe High Principal Brad Breedlove says Garcia is a star among the Union County school’s 1,000 students, 47 percent of whom are Hispanic.

“She does so much around the school that I’m not sure how she gets it all done,” he said, joking that she should win the school’s “Octopus Award.” “That’s because it would take eight arms to accomplish all the things she does simultaneously.”

If all goes as planned, Garcia will be the first among Arcadia and Gildardo Garcia’s 13 children to graduate from college. The parents met as teens in Mexico and have been married for 36 years.

They moved to the United States in 1995, returned briefly to Mexico, then came back to the Charlotte area where they had friends. Currently, all but three of the children are out of the house.

The family’s expenses are now covered by the salary of her 23-year-old brother Gildardo, a welder who also does construction work, she says.

“It was Gildardo who pushed me to go to college,” Maria Garcia says. “If I achieve my dreams, it will be my brother who gets the credit. He wanted to go to college, and he put aside his dream to help the family. The least I can do is go to college. That is paying him back the best way I can.”

Garcia, who loves science, says her father started having mysterious health problems in her junior year and it has progressed to the point that he now can hardly stand. Her mother eventually quit work to stay home and tend to his needs.

The scholarship from the Latin American Women’s Association is one of four scholarships Garcia is piecing together to put herself through college. However, she says it’s still likely she’ll have to take out college loans.

Arcadia Garcia – who dreamed of being a singer as a teen – says she isn’t quite sure where her daughter came up with the idea of being a dentist. But she says the couple came to the United States in hopes of having educated, successful children. She’s happy that her daughter is on a path to make that dream come true.

Violeta Moser of the Latin American Women’s Association says the organization was the first in the region to single out financially struggling Latino teens for college aid. The scholarship program started 23 years ago and has since given away $700,000. In recent years, the dollars have been matched by a growing number of colleges, including UNC Charlotte, Wingate University, Central Piedmont Community College and Queens University of Charlotte.

Moser says the scholarship applicants often have dramatic stories, including some who were surprised to learn as teens that they were not legal United States citizens. Such undocumented teens cannot get in-state college tuition rates in North Carolina. And they don’t qualify for federal college loans, making it nearly impossible for them to afford college on their parents’ blue-collar salaries, Moser said.

Maria Garcia is a U.S. citizen but couldn’t afford the money for school. Moser says Garcia is a good example of what the association is trying to accomplish with its scholarships.

“In Maria’s cases, we know that if she makes it through college, she will change the quality of life for everyone in her family,” Moser said. “The value Latinos place on education is big, because most Latino families know it is the only way to get out of poverty. Maria is an example of that drive.”

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About this series

The Observer asked readers and school leaders for suggestions of standout graduates. Today, we continue our series about students who illustrate a range of accomplishments, including some who overcame significant obstacles.

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