Miguel Gutierrez Jr. /KUT
Seventh grade was a pivotal year for Violet Jimenez. It’s when she started her first job, working as a clown.
“I did birthday parties for little kids and weddings," Violet says. "One of the jokes we always had is, 'We do birthday parties, we do weddings, we do quinceañeras, we do divorces, we do funerals.'”
Seventh grade was also the year Violet started playing the viola at Mendez Middle School in Austin, Texas. Now 17 and a senior in high school, she loves playing music. She lives in the city of Elgin but commutes 40 minutes into Austin everyday to attend the McCallum High School’s Fine Arts Academy.
For many low-income immigrant families in the US, work and taking care of family can sometimes become a bigger priority than graduating high school. Many times, those family responsibilities land on the shoulders of high school students, who must find ways to balance the load.
Statistically, the chances that students like Violet finish high school and go to college are low. Her parents are undocumented and divorced. They didn’t graduate from high school in Mexico. Violet grew up poor with an unstable home life and a negligent father who had custody of her sister and her.
“When I first started doing orchestra or...things like that, my dad would always be like, 'Oh, you’re probably going to end up quitting eventually,'" Violet says. "And, so, that’s always been the mentality in my family. It’s really hard to want to try to be successful.”
Miguel Gutierrez Jr. /KUT
Growing up in Austin, Violet says she and her sister were often left home alone. Eventually, she started working so she could pay for her own food and clothes. Throughout high school, Violet has balanced schoolwork with practicing the viola and multiple jobs. She says her junior year was the toughest because she helped her mom clean businesses while also working at a nearby Sonic.
"I’d cry at night because it would get to the point it was so stressful," Violet says. "Dropping out has crossed my mind and, like, I’ve considered it, but you know obviously you’re not thinking straight when you’re thinking that. Because, what are you going to do when you drop out? Work at Burger King? I mean, I’m sorry, but that’s not the kind of life I want.”
Not all high school students realize they should stay in school — and realizing that is tougher if you have foreign-born parents in the US. Those students have nearly an 8 percent chance of dropping out of high school, according to the non-profit Child Trends. That's higher than the national average of 6.5 percent.
For Violet, having a support system has helped. She found one at Breakthrough Austin, a non-profit that works with first-generation college students for 12 years starting in sixth grade and all the way through college. While teachers, counselors and schools can change every year, Breakthrough is different because of that consistent guidance.
“We can meet with a student and just know them for the length of time. The duration of the program, I think, makes it really special," says Zakkiyah Kareem, Violet’s counselor at Breakthrough.
Last year, the program served more than 1,000 students in the Austin area. Violet applied to the program through her middle school. Ever since, she’s had a Breakthrough counselor check on her weekly. Breakthrough also offers counseling, and summer academic courses, in addition to helping families with college applications and financial aid paperwork.
But, when you’re dealing with more than a thousand students who are working or taking care of their family on top of school, it can be challenging to keep students focused.
"It is hard when you’re having a conversation about planning for the future, when right now they’re living in the day," Zakkiyah says. "Their reality is, 'I‘ve got to have this job because I’ve got to pay for this car or pay for this thing that’s important for me right now.”
Zakkiyah has worked with Violet for several years now.
“I met her when she was in middle school," she says. "So, I kind of got to know her a little bit because of that ... so we can advocate for her, we can check in with her. It’s nice to have adults who know you.”
Miguel Gutierrez Jr. /KUT
She’s helped Violet through some tricky school transfers when her home life got rocky and made sure Violet stuck with the school that offers the orchestra she loves.
“You need that motivation sometimes," Violet says. "And, at least for me, my parents don’t do that. They don’t do that at home. I have to do it myself, and, sometimes, when you’re doing everything on your own, you don’t want to keep trying. But Breakthrough is like my second pair of parents, because they’re there to tell me if I’m messing up, I’m messing up. If I need to get better, I need to get better. But, if I’m doing great, they’ll tell me that, too.”
For Violet, the encouragement helps. She still works three nights a week cleaning businesses with her mom, but she doesn’t live with her dad anymore, and she doesn’t work at the fast food restaurant. That’s one job less for now. But Violet still needs to save money for private viola lessons, new strings and her next challenge: paying for college.