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Rebecca Nieland’s Story: The Power Of Hope

Rebecca and Ricardo Nieland came to Phoenix from Aguascalientes, Mexico with their two small children in 1999. They were pleased with the opportunities they found in America; their children attended the local elementary school, and Ricardo worked for a meat processing plant in Phoenix. The Nieland family was doing well.

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Although Rebecca had had big dreams about the educational opportunities her children might have in America, friends and relatives in the states talked only about the high cost of college. They let her know that high school graduation was the pinnacle of education attainable for immigrants; that was all they could expect, and that was all they had ever dared to dream for themselves. And although she did not fully believe it for her own family, Rebecca had no evidence upon which to contradict this pervasive belief, much less any power to prove it wrong in what was, in some ways, still very much a foreign land to her.

Then, one day in 2007, the Nieland’s phone rang. Someone from Arizona State University was calling to speak to the parents of Alejandra Nieland. The person spoke to Rebecca in her native Spanish, not English. For the first time, Rebecca heard that her children could have a university education. The person talked about scholarships and grants and about a class for parents, offered by the ASU American Dream Academy (ADA). Rebecca did not understand exactly how her family would overcome the many obstacles to a university education, but she had heard enough to give her hope. She took down the information, and went to the introductory meeting.

Rebecca attended her first ADA Parent Program at an elementary school in Phoenix, at a time when her oldest child, Alejandra, attended 7th grade at a nearby middle school. There, she found other parents who also had hope. She knew she wanted to surround herself with these people and to do all that she could to make sure her children had access to the educational opportunities discussed.

From that day forward, every single day, she told Alejandra that she would go to Arizona State University; she would make it. She told her this because she herself believed it but, moreover, because she made a decision to commit to her children’s educational success.

Rebecca now has three children: Alejandra, Ricardo, and Pablo. In the past 9 years, she has taken part in seven different programs that ADA has sponsored at her children’s schools. The curriculum has empowered Rebecca to dialogue with her children. It has helped her be more prepared, more patient. “I used to just say, ‘no, no, no.’ Now, I can talk about their future.”

Alejandra, now 22, recalls that her mother was almost “annoying” while participating in the ADA Parent Program—in a loving, motherly way. She would emphasize the importance of keeping a high GPA throughout high school. She would explain the how doing community service allowed Alejandra to be eligible for scholarships and to look more attractive to universities.

“My mom got to a point where she knew more stuff about school than I did. She would ask me questions like: ‘Do you have all your credits? What's your GPA? Did you already take your 3 years of science classes? How many honors classes are you taking? Any AP classes? If you ever need help, stay for tutoring!’ I would be surprised that she would ask so many specific questions. It was as if ADA had trained her to be my high school counselor.”

The ADA program also changed the Nieland family’s dynamics. Rebecca recalls one particular Friday night, when her husband would typically have a beer and relax for the evening. Alejandra was attending a school function, so Ricardo skipped having a drink so he could drive her home. As a family, the Nielands began to make personal sacrifices in order to work toward a greater goal. Education became everyone’s priority.

“When she worked, we didn’t get our homework done.” Alejandra remembers her mother being criticized when she quit working to be a stay-at-home mom. “But she sacrificed that money, that experience for [my brothers and me], so we could succeed.”

Most ADA parent graduates attend only one 10-week course. Rebecca is grateful for the many opportunities that ADA has given her to attend multiple program sessions. The program is offered at no cost to participants, and its resources benefit the Nieland family tremendously. Repeating the program keeps the information fresh in Rebecca’s head. And with two more children in the Phoenix school system, it is important for mom to keep up-to-date on changing school and university requirements. Rebecca says the program gives her energy that she can invest in her children. And her investment has begun to pay off.

Alejandra, who graduated with a B.A. in Elementary Education from Arizona State University, now teaches bilingual education in Phoenix’s Isaac School District. She graduated after just 3 years at ASU, in part because she participated in the ACE (Achieving a College Education) Plus Program, which allowed her to attend college classes at Glendale Community College while still in high school. She received multiple scholarships and grants to pay for her tuition at Arizona State, all of which she pursued because of her mother’s relentless encouragement.

Alejandra’s younger brothers are on a similar track, with Ricardo Jr. entering Arizona State University as a freshman in August of 2015. He plans to study Chemical Engineering. Pablo will be a freshman in high school this year, but his family’s expectations are set equally high for him. He too will have their encouragement and support to go to Arizona State University to earn his degree.

When talking with Rebecca and Alejandra, it is difficult to determine who is more proud of whom. Rebecca beams with pride over her daughter’s success. “I am just so proud of Alejandra!” But she has poured so much of herself into Alejandra, and her daughter is wise enough to recognize and appreciate it all.

“My mom’s powerful social skills and educational wisdom have made people come to her when they have questions about their child’s education. My mom has encouraged many of her friends to attend the ADA Parent Program. She has changed many of the ways people in our Hispanic community view education: expensive, unattainable, and simply ‘not for us.’"

ADA challenged these perceptions in Rebecca’s life and gave her hope. The result is a mother who has made a profound impact on her family, and a citizen dedicated to encouraging others to use the resources available to do the same.

A Parent’s Responsibility

When Irena first learned of the low percentages of Latinos who graduate from high school and go to college, she was offended. “What racist elements in our school system would produce such an outcome?” she wondered. “But little by little,” she says, “I’ve realized that it’s not just the school that is [responsible] for our children’s education—it’s us as parents too.”

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Prior to attending an 2011 American Dream Academy workshop, she did not offer her children much support for their academic endeavors, Irena admits. Every week she attended, she slowly began taking responsibility for—and taking charge of—her children’s education. She now pays attention to her children’s dreams for their own future.

“As the weeks have passed by, I’ve learned to be with my daughters in the good times and—most importantly—in the bad times,” she notes. “Because it’s in the bad times that they most need our assistance with their homework, tests, and their behavior at home and at school.

“I knew that communication was important for our children, but now I know that it is fundamental for their success, as is spending time with them and disciplining them in and out of the home.”

Irena is one of more than 21,000 parents who have completed the American Dream Academy Parent Education Program in the six years since it began being offered in the Phoenix area. The intiative she took to complete it, coupled with her resolve to see her children succeed, demonstrates Irena’s commitment to support her children. With their mother’s help and support, Irena’s children will overcome those low graduation and college statistics.

Victor Has Gone Back to School

Victor has gone back to school. The married father of three has lived in Phoenix for ten years and supports his family as a carpet and flooring installer, but for the next ten weeks he will attend a free course one evening per week sponsored by Arizona State University and the American Dream Academy. But it isn’t retraining for him. Victor is studying how to create opportunity for his children.

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“When I first came to Arizona and started working, there was another guy working with me who would bring his 12-year old son, Juan, to work with him during school breaks. He said he didn’t want him sitting at home getting bored and this way his son would learn how to support himself with a trade. I thought it was a good idea at the time, and was sorry my own son was too young to come to work with me.” Seven years later, Victor has changed his mind. Juan is a fellow co-worker now, just like his father taught him, and while Victor is grateful for a job that meets his family’s needs, he doesn’t want the same future for his own son.

“I saw how Juan was influenced by his father, and realized my children’s future was largely in my hands. I didn’t want them to drop out of school and have a life with no more opportunity than mine, so I looked for another way to motivate them.” What Victor found was a program that showed him how to prepare his children to go to college.

“I learned that the foundation for academic success begins in elementary school, and the more we take part in school events, and the closer our relationship with the teachers, the more likely our children will have what it takes to be accepted into college. I also learned that discipline and love are the foundation of education, that when we show our children respect and trust, they will develop the self-esteem that will keep them in school with hope for the future. Most importantly, I learned that my children’s chance of going to college has very little to do with how much money I make.”

American Dream Academy has graduated over 15,000 Phoenix parents just like Victor from its Parent Education Program. Over 40,000 low-income school children now have parents who believe, and have committed themselves, to seeing them through high school and into college. For virtually 100% of these families, it will be the first time any family member has ever gone on to post-secondary education. It is a life-changing event that happens every week in any one of the 222 public schools in greater Phoenix that hold American Dream Academy workshops.

A Daughter’s Dream

Josephine’s dreams for her daughter were big from the beginning. “I knew the day she was born that she was college material.”

As her baby girl grew into a young lady, Josephine felt a little scared and a little lost. Faced with having a high school student, Josephine talked with her daughter about attending community college after graduation. “My daughter was growing up, and I knew that it was time to take college more seriously. I work in the education field,” she notes, “education is in constant reform.”

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Her daughter’s high school is one of more than 125 in Maricopa County that has offered the American Dream Academy’s Parent Education Program. Josephine took the opportunity to become better informed about college requirements by completing the program.

“Since I took part in the American Dream Academy,” she says, “I am wiser and feel confident in the education system and how it works. I know what I need to do as a parent to help my daughter be successful in high school, and how to help her prepare for college.”

Having completed the ADA program in 2011, Josephine and her family now plan for her daughter to attend a university after graduation; they have raised their expectations. Josephine knows what is required to make those expectations a reality. “The American Dream Academy helped me realize the importance of making my daughter’s [educational] dreams a priority,” Josephine says. “It opened a line of communication in my family.”