Pursuing a college education was not a big priority in Yaridma Tejada’s home when she was a youngster.
She said her immigrant parents from the Dominican Republic – her mom a high school graduate and her dad, who completed third grade – “never helped me with my homework assignments or seemed to enjoy reading or learning themselves.”
But during her high school years, she said, a program that encourages low-income children to attend college ignited an educational spark in her. That is when she decided she wanted to become the first in her family to go to college and learn about social work so she could combat social injustices in today’s world.
“Being in the Upward Bound program in high school, I met people who were struggling with problems I knew existed in other people’s lives, but I did not expect to be happening to my peers,” said the 22-year-old University of Central Florida senior who has lived in Orlando since she was 5.
“This really opened my eyes and it made me realize that I’d like to help people have their needs met. These past couple of years, there have been a lot of social-justice movements and issues that have been getting time in the spotlight and I love seeing people get together to advocate for a cause. It has also made me more aware of the micro aggressions, discrimination and limitations placed on minorities.”
Soon after Tejada told her college plans to her parents – a public school “cafeteria lady” and a restaurant cook in south Orlando – the news seemed to also ignite an educational spark in them, too.
“My mother would take me to as many Upward Bound events and workshops as she could,” she said. “Once I started going to college, my father would brag to his coworkers and friends about how his first-born is studying hard and would graduate with a college degree.”
At first she said she had no examples or knowledge about college.
“I didn’t know what a college campus looked like, what college life was like, how to apply for college, what a scholarship, grant and loan were, and so many other things about college,” she said. But the Upward Bound workshops and out-of-state conferences opened her eyes to what would be possible at UCF.
Tejada next earned her AA at Valencia College and used the DirectConnect to UCF program to transition to the university. The program guarantees admission to UCF with an associate degree from one of the university’s partner state colleges.
She said she chose UCF because she wanted to stay close to home and help her family. She lives with her mother and two sisters, one of whom is a high-functioning autistic 20-year-old with ADHD.
“My mother works two jobs, so there’s really no time for her to relax and take care of things in the household or my youngest sister,” Tejada said.
She also works as a student assistant in the campus TRiO office, which helps prepare low-income/potential first-generation college students for successful entry and retention in post-secondary education. One of her responsibilities is providing campus tours for TRiO programs that visit from other colleges and universities.
“She does a fantastic job shepherding the groups across campus,” said Rebekah McCloud, director of the TRiO programs in Student Development and Enrollment Services. ”She deftly intersperses her story as a first-generation college student into the narrative about UCF. She generously shares what she didn’t know about going to college, what she learned and what she wished she had known.”
Working in the office, Tejada said, has helped build her confidence to talk to people and gain skills in time management, social engagement, business, networking, public speaking and presentation.
Also during her time on campus she has become a LEAD scholar, UCF Cares ambassador, a member of the Bachelors of Social Work Student Association, and has participated in Volunteer UCF opportunities and events.
In addition to all her on-campus activities, she is interning with the Orlando Youth Advocate Program Inc., which provides children the opportunity to develop and be of value to their community. The program connects youths with caring adults and provides opportunities for them to assume leadership roles and learn healthy behaviors.
“We hold activities for children in the program that help them understand that there are other ways we can react to a stressful situations and how to be able to avoid conflict,” she said.
Despite all her many activities, she said she’s “not as involved as I would have liked to be, but I feel that I have done the most that I could with the time and energy that I had.”
She now plans to graduate this spring with a bachelor’s degree in social work.
After graduation she plans to work in the social-work field for three to five years to gain experience and then pursue a master’s degree once she knows what specialization she would like to focus on.
“She has blossomed into a very capable young woman,” said McCloud in the TRiO office. “She is always a helper, always a listener, and now she is ready to step into a career as a social worker. She is bound to make a difference in the world.”