“Are you sure you want to do this? If you failed once, you’re probably going to fail again.”

And with that, Jeanette Marie Reynoso received some of the worst advice ever given by a college counselor. Reynoso was shocked. She thought the indifference and casual cruelty she encountered in her youth was behind her. But she dried her tears, picked herself up and enrolled in Seminole State College, the first step on a path that has led her to UCF and halfway to realizing a lifelong dream.

“I’ve wanted to be a teacher my entire life,” says Reynoso. “I was that kid who would ask for a blackboard for Christmas and I would teach to my stuffed animals. When my cousins came over, I would make them worksheets on notebook paper.”

But her own experience with schooling — and with life — started out rocky. As a young girl growing up in Bergen County, New Jersey, Reynoso never knew her father. Then, at the age of 12, her mother dropped her off at a sleepover and never came back. Reynoso’s sixth-grade reading teacher helped her get into foster care, but the group home she ended up at didn’t allow her to attend school. A teacher would visit regularly, but the lessons were basic and unstructured.

“I read hundreds of books because we weren’t allowed to watch TV,” Reynoso says. “That was really where my love of reading started.”

Reynoso moved on from that facility at 14 and was finally able to attend high school. But having gone without formal instruction for so long, she struggled. Reynoso dropped out a year later and started working full time. Then, when she turned 18, she aged out of the foster care system.

“The director of the group home said, ‘The state won’t pay for you to stay here anymore,’ and I asked her what I was supposed to do,’” says Reynoso. “She said ‘A lot of people go to college,’ and I said ‘OK, I guess I’ll do that.’”

Reynoso got good scores on the SATs and was accepted to all five colleges to which she had applied. She settled on Fairleigh Dickinson College because it was right around the corner from her group home. For the first time in years, Reynoso was felt hope, pride and a sense that the worst might be behind her. But those positive thoughts were shattered on move-in day at the college.

“I got there and everything was out of my league,” says Reynoso. “Everyone was there with their parents, moving into the dorm, and I showed up by myself carrying a black plastic bag. I had the clothes I had taken from my group home and that was it. I remember just crying my eyes out. That was in August and I only made it to October before I left.”

After her false start in college, Reynoso spent a year volunteering for AmeriCorps, an experience that rekindled her passion for teaching.

“My year in AmeriCorps was in one of the roughest school districts in New Jersey, and it was the most transformative year of my life,” says Reynoso. “I wrote an after-school literacy program for kids in kindergarten througheighth grade. I knew from that moment that I really wanted to work with underprivileged kids.”

Not long after that, Reynoso met Miguel, the man who would become her husband. Suddenly, she went from having no family to being embraced by a huge one.

“When I was in the foster care system, I didn’t have any family,” Reynoso says. “When my husband and I met, I said ‘Tell me about your family,’ and he said ‘Well, I have 12 aunts and uncles and dozens of cousins.’”

Most of her husband’s family lived in Florida, so they decided to move to the Orlando area. After having three children, Reynoso decided to go back to school to be a teacher. She started inquiring at local colleges, which led to that disheartening interaction with an academic advisor.

“I left that meeting in tears. I said to myself, ‘What was I thinking? I’m meant to be a stay-at-home mom,’ ” Reynoso says. “My husband said, ‘Do not let this one person dictate your future.’ ”

With support from her husband, she enrolled at Seminole State College and immediately set about proving the advisor wrong. Reynoso earned straight A’s throughout her time at SSC and finished with a 4.0 GPA, all while balancing her classwork with her responsibilities at home.

After earning her associates degree, Reynoso took advantage of the DirectConnect program to continue her schooling at UCF. At first, the transition was overwhelming.

“The first time I stepped foot on campus, in January 2020, I remember thinking, ‘What am I doing?,’ ” says Reynoso. “There were flyers up everywhere for different clubs and events and I’m thinking ‘Yeah, I go to bed at nine o’clock. How am I going to fit in here?’”

It didn’t take long, however, for Reynoso to settle in and start taking advantage of the some of the programs UCF offers to support students.

“I saw a flyer that said ‘Get on the Knight track.’ If you took a bunch of different steps, like meeting with an academic advisor, going to two workshops and meeting with SARC (the Student Academic Resource Center), you’d get a $500 scholarship,” says Reynoso. “That’s how I ended up applying for McNair Scholars. It was a catalyst for all of these really cool things that I got to do.”

Then along came COVID. Ironically, some of the same pandemic-driven changes that caused many students to struggle actually helped Reynoso excel.

“Moving classes online made it really easy for me to be active and participate in things where I wouldn’t have been able to be on campus in person,” Reynoso says. “Some meet ups were at six in the evening, when I’d be in the middle of making dinner for my family. But I could Zoom while throwing together a salad. In this case, technology really helped me feel integrated and feel like I belonged.”

Fast forward a couple of years and Reynoso has excelled in her pursuit of her elementary education degree.  She participated in the Phillips Academy Institute for Recruitment of Teachers (IRT) summer program, which prepares future educators from diverse backgrounds to pursue advanced degrees. Last summer, Reynoso also studied virtually at Vanderbilt University as part of the Leadership Alliance summer research program.

In addition to all of her other responsibilities at school and at home, Reynoso finds time to volunteer, helping underprivileged students through a number of UCF programs, including Saturday reading camps and the university’s bookmobile initiative, which gives away free books to kids who don’t have access to a library. Reynoso also volunteers on an ongoing basis at the ACE (Academic Center of Excellence) school in the Parramore neighborhood of Orlando.

All this experience in the field left Reynoso well prepared for her current role as a full-time student teacher at Bentley Elementary School in Seminole County.

“When it was time for me to be in my own classroom, I was ready,” she says.

On the cusp of both graduating and turning 36, she’s still not done proving that old advisor wrong. Reynoso was recently accepted into the UCF master’s program for elementary education. From there, she hopes to become a “triple knight,” earning her doctorate in the same subject. Ultimately, Reynoso wants to become the superintendent of a school district, a position that will allow her to exercise her love of teaching while “trickling down” some of the lessons she’s learned over years of being involved in education and activism.

Her message to other parents is to not shy away from filling up their days in pursuit if their dreams.

“One of the biggest misconceptions about going to college is that there’s a point in time when you’re too old to do it,” says Reynoso. “It’s not easy juggling childcare and pickups and making meals and all those other things.  But you can do this. School is for you, and you can join clubs and meet people and be a part of things.”

“I’m so glad I took the leap,” she says. “Being a Knight really has changed my life.”